How to Keep Your Brain Fit
Did you know that we generate new brain cells, and new connections between them, throughout life? Experts believe that the more mental reserves we build up, the better we can prevent age-related cognitive decline. The more you challenge your brain, the more new nerve pathways you form. And you can give your brain a good workout with just a few modifications in your daily life. Here are some things you may want to try.
1. Stay mentally active. Have you heard of neurobics? Named after the late neurobiologist Lawrence Katz, neurobics involves engaging different parts of the brain to do familiar tasks. This theory says that brushing your teeth or dialing the phone with your non-dominant hand, for example, can strengthen the pathways in the opposite side of your brain. Dr. Katz also suggested involving more of your senses in everyday activities—such as showering or eating dinner with your eyes closed.
Activities that challenge your brain on many levels, such as learning how to play a musical instrument or speak a new language, provide great stimulation. So do games like chess, bridge and Stratego that require you to strategize and interact socially at the same time.
2. Adopt a brain-healthy diet. What is good for your heart is good for your brain, and vice versa. Heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity all raise the risk for age-related cognitive decline, as does smoking and heavy drinking. A heart-healthy diet with lots of vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grains and olive oil, and a minimum of saturated fat, is brain-healthy as well.
Research suggests that high cholesterol may contribute to stroke and brain cell damage. A low fat, low cholesterol diet is advisable. And there is growing evidence that a diet rich in dark vegetables and fruits, which contain antioxidants, may help protect brain cells.
According to the most current research, a brain-healthy diet is one that reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes, encourages good blood flow to the brain, and is low in fat and cholesterol.
• Manage your body weight for overall good health of brain and body. A long-term study of 1,500 adults found that those who were obese in middle age were twice as likely to develop dementia in later life. Those who also had high cholesterol and high blood pressure had six times the risk of dementia. Adopt an overall food lifestyle, rather than a short-term diet, and eat in moderation.
• Reduce your intake of foods high in fat and cholesterol. Studies have shown that high intake of saturated fat and cholesterol clogs the arteries and is associated with higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease. However, HDL (or “good”) cholesterol may help protect brain cells. Use mono- and polyunsaturated fats, such as olive oil, for example. Try baking or grilling food instead of frying.
• Increase your intake of protective foods. Current research suggests that certain foods may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and appear to protect brain cells. In general, dark-skinned fruits and vegetables have the highest levels of naturally occurring antioxidant levels. Cold water fish contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids: halibut, mackerel, salmon, trout and tuna. Some nuts can be a useful part of your diet; almonds, pecans and walnuts are a good source of vitamin E, an antioxidant.
3. Stay physically active. Physical exercise is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain as well as to encourage new brain cells. It also can significantly reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes, and thereby protect against those risk factors for Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Growing evidence shows that physical exercise does not have to be strenuous or even require a major time commitment. It is most effective when done regularly, and in combination with a brain-healthy diet, mental activity and social interaction. Aerobic exercise improves oxygen consumption, which benefits brain function; aerobic fitness has been found to reduce brain cell loss in elderly subjects. Studies show that even 30 minutes of brisk walking daily can improve blood flow to the brain, boosting neural growth factors and brain connectivity, perhaps as much as mental cross-training does.
4. Remain socially active. Research shows that people who are regularly engaged in social interaction maintain their brain vitality. One study reported that leisure activities that combine physical, mental and social activity are the most likely to prevent dementia. In the study of 800 men and women aged 75 and older, those who were more physically active, more mentally active or more socially engaged had a lower risk for developing dementia. And those who combined these activities did even better.
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