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Guide to brain health: 4 key lifestyle tips

Monday, November 13, 2023 3:49 PM

By NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

Physicians agree that sleep, exercise and a healthy diet all play a factor in brain health.

Smita Patel, DO, is a neurology specialist with more than 20 years of experience in the medical field. She is involved with the Center for Brain Health at NorthShore University HealthSystem and president of the Illinois State Neurological Society.

She stresses the importance of keeping the brain healthy with preventative care. “When we dig more, we find other factors associated with memory loss,” Dr. Patel said. She sees adults, usually over 30, for issues like memory loss, depression and sleep.


“They might come to me because they have a family history and they’re worried about their memory. Together, we look at all their risk factors and find methods to help decrease those risk factors.”

Stay active

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of exercise a week plus two days of strength training, she said.

“Of course, there are some people who might be able to do more – we have seen patients’ memory improve even with that much exercise,” she said. “We can see based on MRI scans that there is improvement. With neuropsychological tests, we can see there is a very slight improvement in memory even in two weeks.”

“You are your own baseline. It doesn’t matter what the person next to you is doing. You’ve got to start with what you can do and build from there,” she added.  

Even just taking a walk is helpful. “I usually tell my patients to start with walking if they’re not otherwise exercising. And then, maybe do a little intermittent speed walking. Ultimately, you need to get your heart rate up a little bit.”

Get good sleep

Sleep is very important for brain health. “We have learned from research as well that when we get a good night’s sleep, it significantly reduces the risk of dementia,” Dr. Patel said.

“Most people can do so much better after a good night of sleep; I think we can all relate to that. More importantly, it’s when we’re sleeping that the glymphatic system starts to take impact. It helps remove and wash out the toxins that build up over the day.”

Mari Viola-Saltzman, MD, is a neurologist specializing in sleep medicine with NorthShore Medical Group, part of NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health. She sees patients for conditions like sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, narcolepsy, sleepwalking and circadian rhythm disorders.

While getting those 7-8 hours of sleep a night can seem far-fetched for many adults, sleep deprivation studies have shown that fewer than 6 hours a night can affect memory, leading to cardiovascular disease, weight gain and more, Dr. Viola-Saltzman said.

She screens for symptoms of obstructed sleep apnea, which left untreated can lead to neurocognitive disfunction and vascular changes in the brain.

How can people get better sleep? “We always talk about good sleep hygiene practices with patients — things like taking time to relax before they go to bed and (being mindful that) the bed is just for sleep, so we’re not reading or watching TV there,” she said.

“We go to bed when we’re tired. I hear patients tell me they go to bed early to relax. That’s not good sleep hygiene. The bed should just be for sleep. When we get used to reading or watching TV there it might inhibit our ability to fall asleep.”

Keep a regular bedtime, avoid caffeine after 2 p.m., avoid bright light exposure in the evening and napping too late in the day, and avoid eating or drinking a few hours before bed, she said.

“Exercising during the day has been proven to help people sleep better at night as well,” she said.

Eat healthy

Diet is very important when it comes to brain health as well, Dr. Patel said.

“The Mediterranean diet has been the one that has been the most studied,” she said, referencing the diet inspired by foods typical of the Mediterranean Sea region (Spain, Italy, Greece and France) that is high in plant-based foods and healthy fats found in foods like fish, avocados and olives.

“Other diets are being studied as well so we don’t have a definite action on which diet is best, but in general diets that are low in sugar and refined carbohydrates, the ones that are higher in fiber and healthy fats, are going to be better for you,” she said.

“We have seen in the research that eating these healthy foods do improve our brain, they optimize the way our brain functions. It helps the gut – we have bacteria in our gut and you’re feeding that bacteria which churn out things like serotonin which is good for our brain and our mood. So it is a cycle and that is what I think is so important.”

Learn new things and be social

There is something called neuroplasticity, Dr. Patel said, which, simply put, is the brain’s ability to change and re-wire itself.

“I want people to keep learning new things,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you have to go get a master’s degree. Have a curious mind. When you play card games, you’re being social and you’re being with other people. Maybe you can attend a lecture … take notes and actively learn.”

Dr. Viola-Saltzman agreed. “We need to keep ourselves socially active and not isolated — people who are isolated are at more risk of worsening cognition. Having a purpose is part of it, too,” she said.

NorthShore Neurological Institute’s neuroscience experts provide world-class care for diseases, disorders and injuries of the brain, spinal cord and nervous system. Learn more.