How to keep the mind agile through better eating, exercise and fun
Does the herb gingko biloba guard against memory loss? Forget about it.
A preponderance of research shows gingko does nothing to sharpen or preserve memory, nor does it stave off or slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. But though there’s no magic pill to keep your mind from springing leaks, there are plenty of proven natural ways to help keep your memory intact. Studies have shown you can prevent cognitive decline by maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle. This includes exercise, getting enough sleep, not smoking, being social, eating a sensible diet and limiting alcohol to one or two drinks a day (a small amount of alcohol has been shown to be protective, while immoderate amounts can increase the risk of dementia).
“Better brain health is a whole-health issue, and we need to think of it as such,” says Dr. Cynthia Green, author of “Brainpower Game Plan” (Rodale, 2009), one of her three books on memory.
What stays in your brain depends in part on what goes in your mouth. “Food is like a pharmaceutical compound that affects the brain,” says Dr. Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, professor of neurosurgery and physiological science, University of California, Los Angeles.
Studies suggest Omega-3 fatty acids (found in salmon, walnuts, kiwi fruit, to name a few) promote synaptic plasticity, or the synapses’ ability to change strength, Gómez-Pinilla says. Synapses connect neurons in the brain and are often described as “firing” when learning occurs. Memory retention also occurs at the synapses.
Recent studies also have shown a lower risk of mental decline among people who follow a “Mediterranean diet” rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats. In addition, observational studies suggest that a diet high in antioxidants is protective of cognitive function, says Dr. Kaycee Sink, medical director of the Kulynych Memory Assessment Clinic at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, Winston-Salem, N.C.
Neither Omega-3 fatty acids nor antioxidants in the form of supplements had protective effects when studied, though.
“Follow your heart” is sound advice for making lifestyle choices that are good for brain health. “Anything that’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” Sink says, and that includes exercise as well as a diet low in animal fat and high in fruits and veggies.
Physical fitness and mental sharpness go together. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that adults ages 65 and older who exercised more than three days a week had a lower risk of dementia than their sedentary peers. Another study looked at teens, 30-somethings and 50-somethings who exercised and found that all three groups had a decreased risk of dementia in their 70s.
“You don’t need to go out and become a marathon runner. If you’re sedentary, just going out and walking three times a week can decrease your risk by as much as half,” Sink says.
Our brains need regular workouts, too. Challenging your brain with mental exercises is believed to stimulate communication among brain cells.
“Brain tissue is not a muscle,” Sink says, “but it has the capacity to remodel and make new connections.”
In order to do so, it needs to be exercised by doing something cognitively challenging. “Look for activities out of your comfort zone. If you like to read, try a pottery class,” Green says.
However, you don’t need to puzzle over calculus problems or study Mandarin Chinese. Board games, crossword puzzles, or even a group discussion can build mental muscle. In fact, staying social has been shown to potentially cut your risk for memory impairment in half, Green says.
Multitasking leads to memory lapses because our attention is too divided. “You have to maintain focus on something you want to commit to memory,” Sink says.
While it’s not as though cramming new data into our brains causes older data to “fall out,” it’s true that the brain can only process so much information at a time, she adds. And what it can’t process, it can’t retain.
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