Just like our bodies change as we get older, so does the brain. Dr. Shaun Nanavati, Ph.D., a neuroscience researcher and the co-founder and chief scientific officer at the AQ anxiety management app, says that while people tend to think of age-related brain changes as negative, this isn’t necessarily true.
“It’s a new stage,” he says. For example, he says that someone in their 50s or older may not have the same level of trivia-type memory as when they were younger, but they may have better heuristic thinking, AKA mental shortcuts based on identifying patterns. “There is some brain decline that can happen with age, but it happens much later [than in the 50s or 60s],” Dr. Nanavati explains. In fact, he says that some people don’t experience brain decline until age 95.
How can you up your chances of that happening to you? According to Dr. Gary Small, MD, a memory, brain and aging expert, and the director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior, there’s one habit he recommends everyone over 50 do every day that can increase mental agility: going for a walk.
How Does Walking Support Brain Health?
Sure, you likely know that walking is beneficial for heart health, but the fact that it supports brain health is a bit more surprising. Dr. Small points to one study out of the University of Illinois showing that brisk walking for 30 minutes a day can increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays a role in learning and memory.
Dr. Nanavati agrees that going for a 30-minute walk every day is one of the easiest, most affordable habits anyone over 50 can do for their brain health. “As we get older, it’s better to be milder in your exercise routine and not be as aggressive about it as we might have been when we’re younger. Unlike some more [vigorous] forms of exercise, walking won’t cause inflammation the way more strenuous exercises can,” he says.
One big reason why Dr. Nanavati says that walking is so beneficial for brain health is that it supports good sleep and lowers anxiety, two very important cornerstones for brain health. “There is a lot of research about how the amount of REM sleep someone gets determines how well they think and how well their memory is,” he says. He explains that researchers are still trying to figure out exactly why REM sleep is so important for memory preservation, but EEGs (which measure brain waves) show that the brain is just as active during REM sleep as is it when we are awake, a contrast to what happens during other parts of the sleep cycle.
Dr. Nanavati and Dr. Small say that the connection between brisk walking and lowering anxiety is an important benefit that shouldn’t be overlooked. “Whatever we can do to protect our [mental health] is going to help our memory and cognitive thinking,” Dr. Small says. He adds that people may already have experienced the connection in their own lives; it’s harder to focus or remember things when you’re feeling anxious or depressed.
Additionally, Dr. Small says that aerobic activity, like brisk walking, reduces inflammation in the body, including the brain. “Too much inflammation is linked to impaired cognitive health,” he says.
For all these reasons, incorporating a short walk into your daily routine can majorly support your brain.
Other Habits to Prioritize With Brain Health in Mind
Of course, walking isn’t the only habit you can start implementing to support cognition and memory. Dr. Small says that strength training is another type of exercise that not many people realize is good for the brain. “It’s important to maintain lean muscle mass because it helps with weight control,” he says. To this point, scientific studies show that obesity is connected to reduced brain function.
Staying social is something else that Dr. Small says is important. Scientific studies show that maintaining good social relationships benefits health in a myriad of ways, including both physical health and mental health. So if you go on walks with a loved one, you’re doubly benefitting your mind.
Dr. Small explains that it’s also important to continue to challenge yourself mentally. “You want to train your brain, but not strain it,” he says. “If something is too challenging, it’s going to be stressful, which isn’t good for brain health. But you want to engage your mind in ways that are engaging and interesting.”
Both experts say that when it comes to diet and lifestyle, anything we do that benefits the body in one way will benefit it in many other ways too. If you do something you know is good for your cardiovascular health (like eating heart-healthy foods or exercising), your brain will benefit as well. The inverse is also true: Unhealthy habits negatively impact the body in multiple ways, not just one.
While no one has 100 percent control over their health, it’s reassuring to know that there are scientifically-backed ways to up your chances of being a centenarian with a sharp mind. And it can start by simply taking a walk every day.