Habits That Are Actually Hurting Your Brain

Your brain is unlike any other part of your body — though you likely already knew that. Unlike your muscles, you cannot just keep your brain healthy and functional by lifting weights; however, there are many ways to increase the strength of your brain function and stay sharp. The internet is ripe with ways to keep your brain healthy and functional as you age, but what about the habits you already have? Are they helping or hurting your noggin? And if they are harming your brain, what can be done to fix the problem before it's too late?

Depending on your lifestyle, a few changes may be all you need to work toward a future with a much healthier brain (via Mayo Clinic). A lot of research has been done in regards to keeping our brains healthy as we age in relation to Alzheimer's and dementia and one piece of information stands out among the rest. According to Harvard Health, just aging alone is not enough to lead to cognitive decline. The cognitive decline typically comes from neuro-atypical conditions such as brain injuries or illnesses. Prioritizing brain health by enacting healthy habits is a great way to lower your risk of developing a neurological illness that could potentially lead to starker cognitive decline in your future. 

Wearing earbuds or headphones too often or too long

You've probably heard that playing loud music on your headphones isn't exactly great for your hearing, and you probably know that it is not just emo teenagers who engage in this activity. 

Playing loud music through your headphones in a loud environment can impact the brain and lead to noise-induced hearing loss, tinnitus, and dizziness. To combat this, turn the volume down a bit when enjoying your audio entertainment. Using noise-canceling headphones and over-the-ear styles can also help you to maintain impeccable hearing as you age (via Columbia India Hospitals). Ear infections are also a risk. An ear infection may seem more like a minor inconvenience than a brain-harming ailment; however, ear infections can lead to brain abscesses and meningitis, according to Loyola University Health System (via Science Daily).

Wearing your earbuds too frequently or — gasp – sharing your earbuds can increase the number of bacteria inside the ear canal, leading to infection (per Health Shots). Overwearing your earbuds can also result in excess earwax, which could cause an infection as well. It is recommended that you limit the time spent wearing headphones. And of course, don't forget to sanitize them on the reg.

Not sleeping enough

We live in an era and culture that glamorizes overworking and skimping on sleep; however, the latter part of that equation can have hugely detrimental effects on the health of your brain. Depriving your brain of rest can leave lasting effects on your functionality, especially when it occurs over and over again. Interestingly, and frighteningly, even one night of poor sleep can increase the amount of amyloid-beta, a protein that has been linked to Alzheimer's disease, in your brain, according to the Dana Foundation. Additionally, a lack of sleep has been linked to some neurodegenerative psychiatric disorders as well. 

The brain is amazing, as you well know, but did you know that the brain actually disposes of water waste while we sleep? Poor sleep habits can affect this vital brain function and ultimately allow for more non-soluble deposits of proteins to be left within the brain. Skimping on sleep can also weaken the defenses of our immune systems and degrade our cognition. If you want to keep your brain healthy, prioritize adequate snoozing (via Dana Foundation). 

Eating too much sugar

We all can generally accept that eating too much sugar has detrimental effects on the health of our teeth and our waistlines, ugh. But it turns out that overconsuming the sweet stuff can also impact brain health. Excessive sugar consumption can lead to sugar addiction, memory troubles, and generalized health deficiencies, according to Texas Institute for Neurological Disorders. Dopamine levels can become disrupted if there is too much glucose, or sugar, in the brain. Long-term overconsumption of sugar can even alter gene expression and the availability of dopamine receptors in the brain.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control moods, behavior, memory, and learning. This is why it is so important to protect your dopamine receptors from damage by way of excessive and long-term sugar consumption. This doesn't mean you have to cut out sugar completely — the American Heart Association recommends no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of sugar per day for women and no more than 36 grams (9 teaspoons) for men.

Consuming too much salt

Overconsuming salt is yet another habit that may actually be causing harm to your brain. Ongoing studies in mice have shown that extreme overuse of salt resulted in cognitive impairments. While the researchers explained that they were giving the rats five to six times more salt than a typical American would consume, the results were outstanding. Costantino Iadecola, the study's lead researcher and neurology and neuroscience professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, told WebMD, "No one knows exactly how much salt Americans eat, because most of it is hidden in processed foods or restaurant foods. I'm sure it's grossly underestimated."

Even the mice that were fed the less-salty diets showed signs of impaired cognition. In these mice, salt can initiate a reaction in the small intestine. After having a large amount of salt, Th17, white blood cells that aid in immune function, were produced, leading to an increase in the production of another protein, IL-17. The increase in these two substances creates a reaction that ultimately leads to decreased blood flow to the brain. Though the studies were performed on rodents, researchers believe the same effects can arise in humans who consume too much salt.

Lacking a sense of purpose

Lacking a sense of purpose is harder to nail down than decreasing the amount of salt or sugar that you are consuming. But having a strong sense of purpose, especially as you age, has been linked to less brain tissue damage when compared to people who do not have a sense of purpose in their lives. Autopsies on people who died in their 80s showed fewer areas of damaged tissue in the brains of individuals who felt that their lives had meaning (per WebMD). These areas of dead or damaged brain tissue have been linked to dementia, movement issues, and death.

It is important to note that while a connection between a healthy sense of wellbeing and less brain tissue damage has been found, a straightforward cause-and-effect relationship has not been proven. Nevertheless, older adults are encouraged to seek out purpose by volunteering, learning a new skill, and engaging with the community. These activities can help provide a sense of purpose and ultimately lead to a healthier brain as you age, according to WebMD.

Focusing on the negative

Perpetually focusing on the negative can have an impact on your brain. Studies have shown that people who focus on negative thoughts have higher rates of dementia and memory issues than those who focused on other things. Negative thinkers also can develop higher rates of protein deposits in the brain, the same kind that has been linked to Alzheimer's disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association.

Many studies have been done to prove the link between anxiety, depression, and the occurrence of dementia; however, newer studies are showing that the actual thinking patterns of those with anxiety and depression are the culprit of the harmful protein deposits, according to the Alzheimer's Association. Repetitive negative thoughts about the past and worry about the future were shown to have this effect. 

To combat this, experts and researchers recommend mindful thinking exercises as a way to manipulate your habited negative thought patterns. Though experiencing negative thoughts and feelings from time to time is a part of the lived human experience, researchers are working to discover where the line between "normal" and "excessive" negative thoughts lies (via Healthline). 

Smoking cigarettes

We know, we know — if you are a smoker, you're probably used to everyone telling you how bad it is for you. But smoking tobacco products isn't just bad for your lungs, the substance can have harmful effects on your brain and cognitive function as well. Nicotine interacts with the dopamine receptors in your brain, which can dampen the natural functionality of your brain and ultimately lead to your body craving more and more nicotine to fulfill the desired sensation, according to Healthline

Smoking cigarettes has been repeatedly proven to increase the process of cognitive decline as you age. Smokers are 30% more likely than nonsmokers to develop dementia; however, smokers who quit can decrease their chances of developing dementia to that of a nonsmoker, according to a study in PLoS One. Smokers can also experience a substantial amount of brain volume loss when compared to nonsmokers — and this is in addition to the increased risk of cancer and stroke (via Healthline). 

Though some of the positive effects of quitting nicotine and tobacco can take years to fully regenerate, some — like lowering the levels of carbon monoxide in your body — begin to show themselves after mere hours (via Healthline). If you want to know more about the resources that are available to help you quit smoking for good, chat with your doctor. 

Being bored

The average American adult spends 131 days every year being bored, according to research shared by According to the New York Post. And experts say that spending nearly a third of your life bored can have some effects on your mental health, according to Medical News Today.

However, as it turns out, some people really don't react poorly to being bored. Those who do react poorly, though, experience a decline in their wellbeing. People who are predisposed to boredom often have avoidant personalities, which makes them more prone to the effects of depression and anxiety. Researchers argue that the best way to combat these effects is to find a way to cope with boredom so that it does not end up affecting your mental health. Healthy coping mechanisms can have a lasting influence on your wellbeing, which can lead to a healthier brain overall (via Medical News Today). 

Regularly overeating

The occasional binge eating session may leave you concerned more about bloating than damage to your brain. Nevertheless, the brain can be affected by your eating habits. The hypothalamus — an area of the brain that controls your fight-or-flight response, your desire to mate, and your desire to feed — can be broken down into smaller parts. The lateral portion of the hypothalamus controls our feeding processes, including taste sensation, metabolism, and digestion (per Psychology Today). 

Throughout a series of studies, researchers found that animals on a regular diet were able to perceive their sugar consumption. Notably, the animals who were on a high-fat diet were unable to detect their sugar consumption, thus they over consumed, changing the reactions within the brain. Simply put, overindulging consistently may change your body's ability to send a signal to end the feast. A high-fat diet, in particular, can change the chemistry and function of your brain and ultimately promote overeating. Overeating can then lead to the overconsumption of salt and sugar, two delicious substances that can also wreak havoc on the brain when not consumed in moderation.

Constantly multitasking

Multitasking has a reputation of being the way that super productive people get things done. But it turns out that constant multitasking can actually inhibit productivity and cause harm to your brain. While multitasking seems like a pretty great way to get a lot done at one time, continuously swapping your attention from one project to the next can actually slow down your cognitive function. This happens because when our minds are bouncing from place to place, we become less adept at tuning out distractions and can ultimately bump into insurmountable mental blocks, according to Verywell Mind

Research suggests that multitaskers are more susceptible to distractions when compared to people who focus on one project at a time. However, other research shows that this varies widely from person to person. Multitasking impairs executive function in the brain, which manages the order and execution of certain tasks. Though switching from task to task may only slow cognitive function by mere tenths of seconds, this adds up over time. Experts caution that while this may not seem very significant when performing multiple household tasks at one time, when it comes to life or death situations these micro-moments can be, well, life or death. By staying focused on one task at a time, your brain will be better able to cope when a situation that needs your undivided attention arises (via Verywell Mind). 

Spending a lot of time in polluted areas

Breathing in polluted air has been proven to have negative effects on your cardiovascular and respiratory health, but it turns out that it can actually harm the brain as well. As if we needed another reason to want an electric car.

Research has found that breathing in smoggy air can negatively contribute to cognitive abilities in children, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Studies have also shown that children who experienced more exposure to black carbon consistently scored lower on memory, verbal, and nonverbal tests. Furthermore, children who were exposed to high levels of urban pollutants while in utero were more likely to experience attention issues and symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Smog can also contribute to cognitive decline in adults and contribute to depression. Research has shown that exposure to both fine and coarse pollution particles can harm the human body. But the smaller particles have a much easier time traveling through the olfactory system (the system that controls your sense of smell) and into the brain. Studies have shown that people living in highly polluted areas have higher rates of cognitive decline, which could potentially contribute to the onset of dementia (via APA). 

Spending a lot of time inside

You might think that spending a lot of time inside your house and away from the harmful pollutants of the urbanized world is a surefire way to protect your thinking cap, but unfortunately, you'd be wrong  — sorry! Spending too much time indoors can have harmful effects on your brain too. 

Exposure to the sun can help strengthen your body's natural circadian rhythm, which has a big role in the regulation of other bodily functions. Without a properly functioning circadian rhythm, you are more likely to fall victim to diabetes, substance abuse issues, depression, and a generalized lack of wellbeing, Kenneth Wright, director of the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado, told Time. In fact, spending time outdoors can increase your feelings of physical and mental energy by nearly 40%. Spending time in nature is the antithesis of brain-harming "media multitasking," so it can hugely benefit your brain function, ability to focus, and sense of wellbeing (via Time).

Not drinking enough water

Getting properly hydrated can seem like a daunting task, especially when combined with all of the other things you need to get through in a day. However, xisting in a state of dehydration can lead to negative brain effects, which is a pretty good reason to grab your water bottle and drink up.

As your hydration levels plummet, your cognitions decline in turn. Dehydration is tricky — a 200-pound person who performs a grueling workout can easily drop 4 pounds of water weight, a figure that accounts for about 2% of their body mass, according to Mindy Millard-Stafford, director of the exercise physiology laboratory and professor at Georgia Tech's School of Biological Sciences (via Healthline). If these fluids don't get replenished, dehydration could occur and as it progresses, it could begin to affect the available level of cognition.

Some of the earliest signs of dehydration include headaches, thirst, dizziness, and nausea. As dehydration gets worse, so do the corresponding symptoms. The solution here is pretty simple, especially when compared to some of the other brain-saving tasks: drink up! Ensuring that you are drinking enough water will help your brain function at optimal capacity. 

Sitting too much

Not only does sitting much of the day have a noticeable effect on your physical body, but it could be contributing to neurological harm as well. Sedentary people have reduced thickness in the medial temporal lobe, the memory region of the brain, than people who do not lead sedentary lifestyles. Unfortunately, sitting for most of the day and then getting some exercise is not enough to combat these effects. It turns out that exercise doesn't seem to have much of an effect on the thickness of the medial temporal lobe at all, unfortunately (per Forbes).

Sedentary lifestyles have also been linked to Alzheimer's development. This could be because sitting all day reduces your brain's plasticity, because of a decrease in the birth of new neurons, or because of increased inflammation. Experts suggest that simply reducing the amount of time spent sitting is the best way to counteract these effects. Spending less time sitting has proven to be more effective in beginning to reverse this process than just adding exercise, as explained by Forbes.