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Brain Health Vital Signs

Extended Information Sheet

Additional Resources:


  • Sleep is important for brain health because it allows you to form and maintain the pathways in your brain that help you learn and create memories.
  • A restful asleep is important for concentration and is overall very important for cognitive function.
    • Getting quality sleep has a positive impact on mood and stress, which can improve overall wellness and quality of life.
  • Less sleep can have a big impact on mood and memory. It can also make you vulnerable to numerous health conditions, such as depression.
  • Goals
    • Try to sleep at least 7+ hours a night.
    • If you have sleep apnea or other sleep disorders:
      • It is highly recommended to seek treatment to ensure the highest quality of sleep possible.


  • Exercise/physical activity helps improve your thinking, attention, and memory as well as your physical health.
  • Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which is crucial towards optimal function and decreasing levels of stress.
    • Regular exercise can also help with other factors that contribute to your overall health, such as managing weight, reducing chronic diseases, and strengthening your immune system.
    • Minimal to no exercise can have a negative impact on managing stress and mental wellness.
  • Goals
    • At least 150 minutes of light or moderate aerobic exercise per week is recommended.


    • At least 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week is recommended.
    • Making small exercise goals every week is helpful because it can allow you to slowly get your body used to exercise, which makes it easier to become a maintainable part of your lifestyle.


  • Alcohol can interfere with the brain’s communication pathways. Heavy drinking for long periods of time has a negative impact on the brain and can cause serious changes to brain structure and function.
    • Newer research has shown that while there may be some overall health benefits to limited drinking of alcohol each week, daily consumption has more downsides then benefits.
    • Heavy drinking can also cause serious liver damage, disrupt the growth of new brain cells, and interfere with your ability to form new memories.
  • Goals
    • If you do not drink alcohol now, guidelines suggest that there are no reasons to start drinking alcohol.
    • On days you choose to drink, intake should be limited to 1 drink or less for women, and 2 drinks or less for men.
    • If you have a more serious problem with alcohol, there are many ways to seek help, including discussions with your medical providers and other community support services.


  • Stress can have many negative effects on the brain and body. Chronic stress, which involves the long-term buildup of a hormone called cortisol in the brain, can lead to many detrimental health issues.
    • High levels of cortisol can damage regions of the brain involved with memory and learning (including the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex), increase risk of developing cognitive impairment, and lead to the brain being less efficient when it comes to achieving necessary tasks.
    • High levels of cortisol and stress can also disrupt the way brain cells communicate with one another in a way that can directly impact one’s sociability and maintenance of healthy, positive interactions with others.
    • Stress can additionally cause shrinking and death of brain cells, including the part of the brain most important to cognitive function (the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning).
    • Stress increases one’s risk of worsening, or developing, other health conditions, such as diabetes, depression, digestive problems, and heart disease.
  • Goals
    • People with depression, anxiety, and high levels of stress should seek help and treatment (e.g., therapy, medication, meditation, and other strategies)
    • There are many ways to reduce stress and prioritize your mental health and wellness, such as:
      • Exercise
      • Meditation and mindfulness practice
      • Being more social
      • Journaling
      • Making time for enjoyable activities, like reading or playing video games
      • Allowing for more personal time without distractions
      • Getting quality sleep
      • Eating well
      • Stretching


  • Deprivation of proper nutrients can lead to injury of brain structures. Evidence shows that diets high in refined sugars (the “added sugars” on nutrition labels) are correlated with more impaired brain function compared to diets with natural sugars (found mostly in fruits, vegetables, and dairy).
    • An example of an essential nutrient that keeps your brain healthy is omega-3 fatty acids, which fish is a great source of.
    • A poor diet can lead to lower mood and energy and may make you more susceptible to conditions, such as depression, liver disease, dementia, and certain types of cancer.
    • A healthy diet can lead to improved gut health, decreased inflammation, and a greater amount of nutrients to support the body’s functions, and can leave you in anoverall better mood.
  • Goals
    • It is recommended to follow the Mediterranean Diet, as closely as possible.
      • Eat red meat at most 2x a week, eat fish more than 2x a week, eat a lot of veggies, fruits, nuts, and as little as possible processed foods and sweets.
    • Setting small goals is a great way to slowly change your diet so that your habits, food intake, and lifestyle more closely adheres to the Mediterranean.
      • Slow changes are a better way to maintain the diet as a part of your lifestyle.
      • Rapidly changing to a “stricter” diet will more quickly lead to burn-out, and not be beneficial to developing the diet as a lifestyle.

Purpose in Life

  • Having a “purpose in life” means that someone derives meaning from their life and experiences. When people have a sense of direction and meaning in their life, it is easier for them to set and achieve goals.
    • People with a purpose in life tend to be more motivated and have less negative mood/stress impacts on their life. They are also typically more social and take better care of themselves (diet and physical activity).
  • Without a purpose in life, it is common to feel depressed, lonely, and without motivation, which are risk factors for cognitive impairment and dementia.
    • When someone cannot identify meaningfulness in their life activities and as a result take less care of themselves, they are more likely to have deterioration of things like…
      • Physical health/activity
      • Mental well-being
      • Social connectedness
      • Cognitively stimulating activities
  •  Goals
    • Look for meaning in day-to-day activities.
    • Set goals and enjoy achieving small victories along the way.
    • Join community programs that participate in volunteer work.
    • Make positive connections with people who empower you.
    • Seek help if you do not have a good support system, or need help finding a purpose/meaning in life (e.g., therapy, counseling)
      • If you do have a good support system, maintain healthy communication with them and receive help from those who provide encouragement.


  • Hearing enables communication and fosters an understanding between people. As a result. struggling to hear during conversations can lead to frustration and can cause people to become less engaged and more withdrawn.
    • Withdrawing socially and avoiding interactions can result in increased loneliness and not enough necessary social engagement and connectivity.
  • Difficulty hearing is a risk for developing impairments in cognition and learning.
    • Hearing difficulties create barriers between the person with impairment and the environment and richness of an experience. As a result, the formation of memories and ability to learn from the environment and/or experience is significantly interfered with since our senses play a big part in memory and learning.
  • Goals
    • Speak to your medical provider if you are having difficulties with your hearing.
    • If your hearing is already corrected (e.g., hearing aids), be sure to maintain and consistently use the corrective device.


  • Smoking has been found to accelerate aging of the brain.
    • People who have nicotine byproduct (found in cigarettes and cigars) in their blood tend to score lower on a brain function test than someone who does not.
  • The longer someone smokes, the more their brain tissue loses volume.
    • Vital parts of the brain can start to shrivel up and lead to impairment.
  • Smoking significantly increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, which are both strongly linked to decline of brain health and cognition.
  • Goals
    • Set small goals at time to gradually break the smoking habit.
      • Quit smoking sooner rather than later.
    • Talk to providers, family, or friends about receiving help and where to find resources to assist you in quitting.

Cognitive Activity

  • Incorporating cognitively stimulating activities into one’s lifestyle exercises and challenges the ability to think.
  • Learning new skills is important and can lead to memory improvements.
    • Learning new things actually causes a physical change in your brain, as a result of neuroplasticity, which leads to growth and change in neural networks as you learn.
    • Just like physical activity makes your muscles stronger, cognitive activity makes your brain stronger.
  • Keeping your brain active has many benefits towards reducing decline and maintaining healthy cognition.
  • Goals
    • Incorporate new cognitive activities into your daily lifestyle.
      • You can start slowly with learning one or two new skills or activities.
      • Once you become good at one activity, try to learn something else to continuously challenge your brain.
    • Here are some examples of activities to try:
      • Reading
      • Card games
      • Word games
      • Drawing or other arts
      • Board games
      • Learning a new language
      • Learning a new technology
      • Puzzles
      • Strategy games (e.g., chess)

Social Engagement

  • Social engagement is believed to help “protect” against cognitive decline and prevent the negative effects of social isolation.
    • Social isolation and loneliness can lead to a depressed mood and disrupted sleep, which are both risk factors for dementia.
  • Social engagement can activate and exercise the parts of the brain needed for recognition of faces and emotions, decision making, and for feeling fulfilled and rewarded, which are all significant in healthy cognition.
  •  Goals
    • Stay regularly connected with friends and family.
    • Try to engage in social activities that you may enjoy, such as…
      • Clubs (e.g., gardening, book, language)
      • Community organizations (e.g., volunteering, activism for causes)
      • Classes
      • Social groups
      • Computer-based communication
      • Owning a pet


  • If the brain must use a lot of its resources trying to see the world more clearly, its ability to function at a high level on other tasks will be limited.
  • Vision loss can cause people to decrease their physical activity, social activity, and cognitive activity (e.g., reading), which are all very important for maintaining brain health.
  • Similarly, to hearing, vision is an important part of engaging with your environment and the richness of one’s experiences. These are both crucial factors when it comes to learning and forming new memories.
    • Our senses contribute greatly to the formation and maintenance of memories.
  • Also, just like hearing impairments, having visual impairments makes it more probable that someone will withdraw from their environment due to frustration or embarrassment over the difficulties they face. This makes the person more likely to participate in social isolation, which has many negative effects on brain health.
  • Goals
    • Talk to your provider about the necessary steps to take in order to correct your vision.
    • If your vision is corrected…
      • Be consistent with the corrective treatment and follow the providers advise.
      • Schedule regular visits to maintain corrected vision.
        • Vision changes as you age, therefore your corrective treatment may need to be changed also (e.g., getting an updated prescription for contacts or glasses).


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