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Dr. Fernstrom: 7 ways women can boost their brainpower

In honor of Brain Awareness Month, NBC News health editor, Dr. Madelyn Fernstrom, lays out the best, science-backed tips.
NBC News health editor Madelyn Fernstrom discusses mental health awareness with Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.
NBC News health editor Madelyn Fernstrom discusses mental health awareness with Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski.Miller Hawkins

Aging is a natural process that impacts every body part, including our brains. And while there are no guarantees of lifelong optimal brain power, the good news is that years of scientific study document that a number of lifestyle habits – carried out over years – helps support brain health.

Check out some science-based strategies for keeping your brainpower up as the years go by. While it might be a challenge to tackle them all, start with one or two tips that you feel you can do regularly, and build on your success. Good brain (and body) health is its own reward!

Eat smart

Forget the “fish is a brain food myth.” It’s not about eating specific foods. Rather, it’s about long-term patterns of healthy eating that provides the nutrients supporting a healthy heart, digestive track and brain.

Focus of fruits and vegetables as your main source of carbohydrates, with limited amounts of the starchy ones (like bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, cereal). Include plenty of lean protein – both plant and animal based – as well as heart healthy, plant fats.

Add a serving or two of low or non-fat dairy products. And if you are dairy free, make sure you bulk up on dark green vegetables, to meet your daily calcium needs. And this basic style of eating works for all versions of “healthy eating” – intermittent fasting, small meals and snacking, big breakfast and smaller lunch and dinner, or whatever is easiest and most practical for you. Don’t forget a daily “treat” – up to around 200 calories – of what YOU really want, as well as occasionally indulgent meal.

Preventing deprivation is a main part of staying on track for life.

Keep Moving

Physical activity of all kinds helps boost overall circulation, important for a healthy body and mind. The key is regular activity. Your best bet is to maintain “activity of daily living” – getting extra steps into your day, however you can. It’s not necessary to set aside separate time for exercise, if time is limited. If you can walk for 30 minutes daily (even in bouts of as little as five minutes) that’s a great start. And it’s important to recognize the importance of all three parts of the activity triad: cardiovascular (like walking, running, biking), strength training (free weights, machines and bands) and flexibility (yoga, pilates). Choose what you like to do, to support the likelihood that you’ll stick with it regularly.

RELATED: What’s your exercise personality?

Manage your stress

Often, this is easier said than done! Real life is never stress-free, but it’s possible to make some changes that help reduce it. Stress has both a biological and emotional impact on the brain. First, recognize your stress – and think about ways you can manage it better. Whether it’s deep breathing, meditation, exercise, or connecting with a friend, it’s a personal choice of what works for you. And a key part of stress management is recognizing what you can and cannot control in life, combined with changing your response to the stressors that do impact you.

Don’t skimp on sleep

Studies continue to document that skimping on sleep is bad for both your brain and body. Make the mental shift that time sleeping is important and restorative, and adjust your life to get adequate sleep – at least 7 hours nightly (research confirms less than 6 hours of sleep regularly is a health risk). And if you are experiencing new sleep disturbances as time goes on – either trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, see your doctor for advice. A good night’s sleep has both biological and behavioral components; a thorough medical evaluation can go a long way towards resolving any sleep-related issues you’re facing.

RELATED: Can you eat your way to a better night’s sleep?

Challenge your brain

While your brain is not a muscle that can be “exercised,” it’s well documented that your brain is stimulated by new experiences – so keep it stimulated with new activities. And you don’t need to buy specially marketed “brain games.” It’s all about challenging your brain with something different. This can be as simple as doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, or more involved – like learning a new language or playing an instrument. The key concept is doing something new and different that you enjoy.

Stay connected

In today’s world, it’s easy to feel disconnected when a go-to source of connection is digital and social media reigns. While this can be part of your life-connection network, make an effort to stay connected with friends and family in person, by phone or FaceTime. Loneliness has been shown to be a strong health risk, at any age. Your brain loves interactions and companionship. Reach out to connections old and new – with a class, book club, or your group activity of choice.

Look for purpose and meaning

A life with purpose and meaning goes a long way to promoting a healthy brain. There are many ways to achieve this, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Take some time to think about what gives meaning and purpose to your life. It might be caring for your family, volunteering, working in a healthcare setting or community service. The satisfaction and sense of accomplishment of doing something you care about can be huge boost to your mental fitness and sense of well-being.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is NBC News’ Health Editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.