Keep Your Brain Healthy

Forget about using crossword puzzles to keep you sharp. New advances in neuroscience are shedding light on what it really takes to head off cognitive decline.

If you've ever blanked on a neighbor's name or forgotten where you parked your car, you're not alone. You may have even done a panicky Google search for "memory loss." After all, scores of Americans have some form of cognitive impairment, with Alzheimer's disease alone affecting an estimated 5.1 million.

Is there anything you can do to lower your risk? In a nutshell, yes. But until recently, reliable advice was tough to find. In 2010, the National Institutes of Health assembled a panel of specialists from several disciplines— including neurology, geriatrics, psychiatry, and preventive medicine—and asked those experts to review an enormous body of research involving thousands of volunteers across various age groups.

The goal was to form a working consensus on what the mind really needs to stay sharp through middle age and beyond. In the end, some purported brain boosters were shown to have little effect, while a few surprising things looked beneficial.

Here's a review of the best and brightest strategies.

Kick the Couch Habit

A brisk walk today could ease your trip down memory lane later.

In a study led by Arthur Kramer, Ph.D., director of the Lifelong Brain and Cognition Laboratory at the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign, volunteers ages 55–80 agreed to walk for about 40 minutes, three days a week. One year later, brain scans revealed that the average walker's hippocampus—the area responsible for memory and learning—grew by a significant 2 percent.

Meanwhile, among people in a sedentary control group, the same brain region shrank. Walkers also scored 15–20 percent higher than nonwalkers on cognitive tests.

"Aerobic exercise may boost the activity of growth hormones in memory-related parts the brain, fueling the creation of brain cells, improving the connections between them, and nourishing blood vessels," Kramer says.

Even if you struggle with sticking to an exercise regimen, know that some movement is better than none. A six-year study of 1,740 adults over age 65 found that the incidence of Alzheimer's disease dropped with increased levels of routine daily activity (as measured by motiontracking sensors).

So take the stairs instead of the elevator and sneak in a quick walk between errands.These smart moves can add up.

Opt for a Mediterranean Diet

You've probably heard that a diet rich in seafood, fresh veggies, whole grains, and plant-based oils—common in Greece and southern Italy—is great for your heart.

Mounting evidence shows it can help the brain, as well. In a study of nearly 2,200 New Yorkers over age 65, those who regularly enjoyed Mediterranean-style meals were 40 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease after four and a half years than volunteers who stuck to a traditional Western diet.

Mediterranean-inspired eating might be beneficial for several reasons, says study coauthor Nikos Scarmeas, M.D., a neurologist at Columbia University in New York City.

First, it's associated with lower levels of inflammation in the body, which could protect the brain's blood vessels from damage. The diet is also loaded with antioxidants; further research will investigate whether these and other compounds in the diet reduce the formation of harmful amyloid protein plaques in brain tissue.

In the meantime, check out delicious ways to bring Mediterranean elements into your meals.

Know Your Blood Pressure

Quick: What's your blood pressure? If you're drawing a blank, it might be time for a checkup. Of the 65 million Americans believed to have hypertension, only half realize they're affected.

If left untreated, high blood pressure (defined as 140/90 or higher) can raise a person's risk of dementia by up to 48 percent, according to a study in the journal Neurology. One possible reason is that hypertension impairs blood flow to the brain, shortchanging the organ on the nutrients and oxygen it needs to stay vital, says Tracey Holsinger, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist at Duke University.

Even people with prehypertension—a borderline condition defined by a blood pressure reading of 120–139/80–89—tend to show more evidence of injury to the brain, she says.

To stay healthy, get your blood pressure checked at least every two years (annually if you're hypertensive or prehypertensive). In addition to medication, many of the brain-boosting tips mentioned in this article can help keep blood pressure under control. Your doctor can help you develop a plan.

Learn to Relax

When stress strikes, the brain pumps out cortisol and other fight-or-flight hormones, which can short-circuit the memory-making process. That explains why people often have little recollection of white-knuckle experiences, such as public speaking. Over time, however, continuous exposure to stress hormones sets the stage for serious problems.

A number of large studies have found that people with chronically high stress levels are up to three times more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than their less-anxious counterparts. You can't always avoid tense situations, but you can control how you respond to stress.

Step one is to recognize the symptoms: Headache, muscle tension, irritability, impatience, and stomach upset are among the more common. If you find yourself feeling on edge, try taking a few deep breaths, stepping outside for fresh air, or chatting with a sympathetic friend.

Research shows that simple soothing acts can interrupt the cascade of stress hormones and relax the mind and body. For longer-lasting stress protection, consider yoga or meditation. In one study, people who meditated regularly were less anxious and exhibited greater activity in the brain region with memory than people in a control group.

Here's a beginner meditation exercise from Giuseppe Pagnoni, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Modena, Italy: Sit cross-legged on the floor with your back straight. Gaze at a spot a few feet in front of you, breathing slowly as you imagine your mind opening and expanding. If a stressful distraction pops into your head (Did I remember to mail the car payment?), don't try to squash it; instead, allow it to drift through your thoughts like a cloud in the sky. Continue for 10 minutes.

Seek New Experiences

If you've always wanted to speak French or start a book club, consider this your incentive to get cracking: Studies show that people who routinely seek new experiences, acquire new knowledge, and engage in mentally stimulating tasks of any kind are up to 50 percent less likely to develop dementia than folks whose intellectual habits are less challenging.

One possible reason is that meaningful mental pursuits create neural connections and make existing ones more efficient, explains Yaakov Stern, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York City.

This reduces overall wear and tear on your wiring, making it more resistant to age-related deterioration. For the biggest brain boost, experts recommend engaging in intellectual activities that have a built-in social component, such as joining clubs,volunteering, and taking classes.

Treat Depression

It's normal—even healthy—to feel down from time to time. But getting stuck in a hopeless funk is another matter. "While we're not exactly sure why, depression can predispose people to dementia,"says Christopher Marano, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "It may be that the condition sets off inflammation and activates the stress response."

In a study of more than 13,000 middle-aged men and women at the University of California, San Francisco, those with persistent depressive symptoms—such as trouble sleeping and feeling negative about the future—were 20 percent more likely to develop dementia in the next four decades than happier volunteers.

Researchers are only beginning to explore whether psychotherapy and antidepressant drugs reduce the risk, but Marano says there's no reason to delay seeking help. If you've been feeling down for two weeks or longer, have a talk with your doctor. Depression is a serious medical condition, and it's also highly treatable.

Despite what you might have heard, these so-called intelligence boosters won't do much to make you smarter.

  • Nutritional Supplements: The 2010 NIH panel found no consistent evidence that taking high doses of folate, ginkgo biloba, or vitamins C, E, or B staves off memory loss. One possible exception is omega-3 fatty acid supplements; research is conflicting.
  • Classical Music: Lots of folks listen to Mozart in hopes that the composer's genius will rub off on them. But an analysis of nearly 40 studies and 3,000 people found that classical music offers no advantage over other types of tunes.
  • Mind Games: A 2009 research review found that computer games marketed for brain fitness can improve performance on specific tasks—such as sorting shapes—but they won't sharpen everyday smarts. As for crossword puzzles, they rely on what you already know, so their effect on the brain is limited.

These quick tricks won't exactly guard against cognitive decline, but they could help you retrieve information in a pinch.

  • A Shopping List: Mentally sing the items you need. Tissues, lightbulbs, dryer sheets will never leave your head once you set them to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."
  • Someone's Name: Repeat it as soon as you're introduced. "So nice to meet you, Deborah." Then reinforce the memory by keeping the person's name running through your thoughts: Deborah has a wonderful laugh!
  • That Word on the Tip on Your Tongue: Go through the alphabet in your mind. Striking upon the first letter of a word can cue the brain to fill in the rest. Driving directions As you listen to a person's verbal instructions, imagine a brightly colored map with the streets labeled in big block letters. This simplifies the memorization process by turning two navigation elements—road names and turns—into one.

If you've been feeling foggy lately, you might want to check your medicine cabinet.

In rare cases, cholesterol-lowering statins, among the most widely prescribed medications in the United States, can cause memory problems and confusion. (As of February 2012, patient inserts for the drugs must include a warning that describes the risk.)

Fortunately, the side effect abates when people stop taking the drugs. Your doctor can advise you whether a medication switch makes sense.


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