Your brain. As far as your body goes, that gooey mass between your ears is the unrivaled organ in chief—100-billion cells that collectively control basically everything your body does. But did you know that the vast majority of us are engaged in daily habits that are actually hobbling your brain’s ability to do its thing? Even worse, that many of these habits can have long-term and even catastrophic consequences?
Sadly, it’s true. But the good news is that many—if not all—of these habits can be swiftly corrected. So read on to discover the lifestyle missteps you can avoid and, in so doing, keep your mind in tip-top form.
1. Googling literally everything.
If you’re older than say, 35, you can probably remember a time when you had at least a dozen phone numbers committed to memory. You may also recall certain mental tricks you may have employed to help you do so, such as associating certain number sequences with the location of their keys on the dial pad, or “clustering” the numbers into groups to help you retain them. Guess what? That’s called using your brain.
In today’s connected world, we’re storing information basically everywhere else. In a 2011 paper entitled: Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, college students were shown to recall less information when they knew they could search for it instead.
2. Watching too much reality TV.
The Bachelor, Keeping up with the Kardashians, American Idol. Harmless fluff, right? Not really.
“Reality TV is junk food for our brain, and in the same way that junk food rots our teeth and makes us sick, bad reality TV rots our brain and makes us rude,” says psychiatrist Dr. Marcia Sirota.
Japanese neuroscientists have backed up Sirota’s point of view by demonstrating that prolonged television viewing alters children’s brain structure, which supports findings of several previous studies of lower verbal IQ, as well as increased aggressiveness.
3. Rarely talking to other people.
If you’ve ever lifted weights with concerted effort over a period of time, you’ll have experienced hypertrophy: your muscles get bigger and stronger in response to stimuli. Having conversions is like a workout for your brain. You order your thoughts and feelings and then convert them into language, while almost simultaneously making sense of the thoughts and feelings coming from the person or people you’re talking to. Do that only rarely and you miss out on some really rewarding brain exercise.
Researchers at Stanford University have found that people who are regularly bombarded with multiple streams of digital information have more pronounced problems recalling information and paying attention when compared to people who complete one task at a time.
Research from University of London has demonstrated that that multitasking can temporarily drop IQ scores by 15 percent, while another UK study found that high multitaskers run the risk of permanently damaging their brains. Researchers discovered that multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy, as well as cognitive and emotional control.
5. Working when you’re sick.
Forcing your brain to work or study at or near full capacity when you’re recovering from an illness is a really bad idea. Why? Because a lot of the energy your body needs to recover is being rerouted from healing to say… finishing those reports. Forcing the brain during your convalescence could even weaken the immune system even more, making you more susceptible to illness and consequently foggy thinking.
6. Sleeping with your head under the covers.
Oxygen is vital for brain function. The less of it you draw into your lungs, the less well your brain functions. A good way to create an environment with less oxygen than the 20.95% typically found in the air we breathe is to sleep with a blanket or comforter over your head.
Is being fully burrowed into the covers cozy? Yes. Can it help lessen the jarring effects of too much light and sound first thing in the morning? Absolutely. But it will also lead to an increased intake of carbon dioxide, which means you’re running the risk of damaging your brain cells.
7. Not eating breakfast.
You may have heard that skipping breakfast—often called “the most important meal of the day”—can actually cause you to gain weight. What you may not yet now is that is can also damage your brain. A Japanese study of over 80,000 people over a 15-year period found that participants who regularly skipped breakfast increased their risk of having a stroke and high blood pressure. The study’s authors noted that blood pressure drops after breakfast, meaning that not skipping it could reduce your risk of a brain hemorrhage.
8. Being a fabulous jet-setter.
We all know that having jet lag will make you feel groggy, but what you might not be aware of how it can truly damage the brain.
A study from the University of Bristol looked at the brains of 20 female air crew who regularly flew between seven different time zones. The study, which was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, discovered that short-term objective memory and very simple abstract cognition of these very frequent flyers was affected—concluding that chronic jet lag “produces temporal lobe atrophy and spatial cognitive deficits.” The study’s authors also further suggested that it may not be possible to “recover” from such brain damage if suffered repeatedly over the long-term.
9. Chewing gum.
On the one had, chewing gum has been shown to reduce stress, which is actually a good thing if you want to maximize the power of your grey matter—but it comes at a price. A study from 2012 showed that chewing gum can actually impair short term memory for both item order and item identity. Scientists at Cardiff University in Wales found that gum chewing made it more difficult for participants to recall lists of words and numbers in the order in which they were seen or heard. Additionally, they found that people were less able to spot missing items in lists.
10. Enjoying heavy metal just a little too much.
“Bang your head! Metal health will drive you mad!” So sang Quiet Riot in 1983. Knowingly or not, the band alluded to what can happen if you headbang in excess.
In 2013, a 50-year old man had doctors scratching their heads when he presented at the Hannover Medical School with a headache that wouldn’t abate. He denied substance abuse but did fess up to headbanging at a Motörhead concert four weeks prior.
A CT scan found the Lemmy-lover had given himself a blood clot on the right side of his brain. Authors of a paper on the subject of headbanging and brain damage published in the Lancet commented that: “While such shows are enjoyable and stimulating for the audience, some fans might be endangered by indulging in excessive headbanging.”
11. Too many sweets.
Add brain damage to the things we already associate with a high sugar intake, such as dental cavities, Type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Too much sugar messes with the absorption of nutrients in the food we consume, which, in time, can lead to malnutrition. The brain requires good nutrients to keep working at an optimal level. A 2011 study demonstrated a strong link between sugar intake and study participants’ cognitive function.
In a study in the British Medical Journal, researchers from the University of Oxford and University College London looked at the impact of moderate alcohol consumption on the brain. The results weren’t heartening for barflies. The study looked at the cognitive ability of more than 500 adults over 30 years. Researchers found people who drank between 15 and 20 standard drinks per week were three times more likely to suffer from hippocampal atrophy—damage to the area of the brain involved in memory and spatial navigation.
13. Eating too many calories—period.
A 2012 study suggests that overeating over time could increase your chances of developing memory loss, or mild cognitive impairment (MCI), later in life.
“This study implies that in late life, when you are already at increased risk for cognitive impairment—primarily due to Alzheimer’s disease—increased caloric intake is associated with increased risk of cognitive impairment,” explains behavioral neurologist Dr. Gad Marshall.
14. Not guzzling enough water.
Studies have revealed that prolonged periods of dehydration cause brain tissue to shrink, which, somewhat unsurprisingly, won’t help your ability to perform executive functions like planning and visuospatial processing. Like plant leaves without water, the cells in your brain appear to dry out and contract when deprived of fluid, indicates research from Harvard Medical School.
15. Eating lots of saturated fats.
Having breakfast may indeed be good for brain… provided that breakfast isn’t sausage, greasy piles of bacon, and butter-sodden pancakes. A Vanderbilt University study found that people who consume too many fatty foods develop a defect in the brain, which impedes one’s ability to realize that they are full.
Did you know that nicotine can actually cause your brain to shrink? And yes, prolonged brain-shrinkage can lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
17. Not getting enough sleep.
Duh. But it bears mentioning once more. Sleep is really important to all aspects of our health. The bad news is we’re getting less of it than ever. In 1900, people slept around nine hours per night. In 1970, that number had fallen to around 7.5 hours per night.
According to the CDC, Americans are sleeping less than that with over a third of the 440,000 people polled reporting that they are getting less than 7 hours shut eye per night. Recent studies have shown that not getting enough sleep with reduce your cognitive function and actually kill brain cells.