Body Dimensions: Think Again
Ever arrive at the store and find yourself clueless as to why you went there? Blank on the names of people you’ve known for years? Answer the phone to hear your dentist’s receptionist asking why you haven’t shown up? If you’re like most of us, you chalk these things up as “senior moments” while secretly panicking that you’re developing Alzheimer’s.
In reality, we all have senior moments—and they’re a timely reminder that mental fitness is just as important as physical fitness. “There’s evidence that using your mind a lot has a protective effect when it comes to dementia and Alzheimer’s,” says Dr. Michael Mullan, director of Sarasota’s Roskamp Institute, one of the nation’s leading research centers for neurodegenerative disorders. “People who are mentally active get Alzheimer’s later, and their brains seem better able to compensate for the symptoms.” The good news is that although everyday life exposes us all to things that drain your brain, tuning up your gray matter is something you can do at any age.
Brain Drainer: Stress
Experts believe half of all blindness cases are preventable—but only if know there’s a problem in the first place. It’s not rocket science: Catching eye problems early is the key to treating and preventing them, says ophthalmologist Dr. David Campbell. “Eye exams aren’t just a means of detecting discrepancies in your vision: they’re vital for maintaining eye health,” he says. “Many diseases and conditions of the eye have no symptoms and creep up so gradually you may not be aware your sight is getting blurry.” Campbell’s message is that you shouldn’t wait until there’s an obvious problem. “See eye checks as a fundamental part of maintaining your health and schedule them regularly, just like your other medical checks,” he continues. “They can even reveal other medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes, that you may not realize you have.”
Brain Booster: Wind Down
Yoga is one of the very best stressbusters. “Certain poses slow your heart rate and lower blood pressure,” says Lynn Burgess, registered yoga teacher and director of Yoga from the Heart. “This helps counteract the physiological effects of chronic, unrelieved stress.” Yoga incorporates meditation, controlled breathing and stretches that ease muscle tension. “Together, these elements foster a degree of self-awareness that helps you tune in to the signals your mind and body are giving you,” adds Burgess.
Take it Slow
Avoid multi-tasking, which can result in lack of focus and confusion as your brain is forced to switch back and forth. Focus on one thing at a time and think creatively to give your brain a mini-workout.
Ease Your Emotions
Essential oils have a powerful effect on brain chemistry and stress levels. Lavender, peppermint and eucalyptus have calming, mentally-relaxing effects, and in one study, citrus was shown to reduce the need for anti-depressants.
You are what you eat, and that goes for your brain, too. A junk food diet leaves your system buzzing with harmful free radicals that can damage brain cells and clogged with cholesterol that blocks the arteries leading to your brain. Poor eating habits also raise your risk of obesity—and studies have shown that if you’re obese in your 40s you’re way more likely to develop Alzheimer’s, especially if you also have high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Heavy drinking also affects brain structure and impairs thinking.
Food For Thought
keep it colorful Brightly-colored fruits and vegetables are a source of antioxidants, which protect cells, so eat more dark berries and cherries; red and orange fruit and vegetables; and dark green, leafy vegetables. Mullan points to purple grapes as a good source of an antioxidant called resveratrol: “Studies indicate it may stop accumulation of B-amyloid, a protein that has been linked with Alzheimer’s.” Nuts are also a good source of antioxidants, as is dark chocolate (now you have an excuse!).
Yes, it really is brain food. Oily fish— such as salmon, tuna and mackerel—is high in omega-3 fatty acids. These stimulate the formation and function of brain cells and also have anti-inflammatory effects that may cut the risk of Alzheimer’s. If you don’t like fish, take a fish oil supplement.
Try Herbs That Help
Both rosemary and basil may help alert your brain when inhaled. Gingko biloba is believed to increase oxygen flow to the brain, improving concentration, and ginseng has been shown to boost the memory. “In traditional Chinese medicine, the kidney is the root cause of degenerative brain disorders,” says acupuncturist and Doctor of Oriental Medicine, Mary Cetan. “The solution is to stimulate, or ‘tonify,’ the kidney to increase its energy level, thereby improving blood circulation and boosting brain function. We can achieve this with a combination of herbs—including gingko and ginseng—acupuncture and lifestyle and nutritional changes.” Cetan advises anyone considering using herbal supplements to consult a registered practitioner: “Some herbs can prevent clotting, so anyone taking anti-coagulants should check with their doctor before using herbal remedies.”
Huperzine A, a compound extracted from Chinese club moss may also improve memory and learning and is being researched as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s. While there is currently no concrete evidence that any of these herbs will prevent Alzheimer’s, Mullan believes they may well contain beneficial compounds. “As yet, there hasn’t been enough research into the effect of herbs on brain function,” he says. Like Cetan, he says it’s best to consult a registered herbalist. “You don’t really know what you’re getting with over-the-counter herbal supplements,” he cautions. “Various studies have shown that they can contain contaminants or have no active ingredients at all.”
Lack of Exercise
Couch potatoes risk obesity, heart problems, high blood pressure and diabetes. “Your brain depends on adequate blood flow to maintain its oxygen levels,” Mullan points out. “By keeping your heart healthy and your blood pressure and cholesterol at safe levels, you help to increase the flow of blood to your brain.”
Get Up and at it
Walk for Wisdom
Research from Johns Hopkins University indicates that walking helps maintain mental sharpness—walk briskly for at least an hour and a half each week and you’ll outperform your less active peers when it comes to thinking ability, memory and attention span. “If you increase blood flow to your muscles, you increase it to your brain, too,” Mullan explains. “Walking helps you achieve this in a controlled, continuous manner.”
Play Strategy-Based Sports
Sports that require you to think give you the best of both worlds. Racquet sports such as tennis and table tennis are ideal; for a more leisurely pursuit try dance and learn some more intricate steps so you’re not just doing it on auto pilot.
Wiggle Your Toes
Believe it or not, this activates nerves that stimulate your brain! Do it when you wake or if you’ve been sitting down for an extended period of time—you’ll feel more alert when you get up.
Social and emotional isolation make you vulnerable to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s in later life—some experts believe this is because negative emotions such as loneliness cause changes in the brain.
A Circle of Friends
Be sociable If you’re married, don’t just rely on each other for company—getting together with three or more people is especially beneficial. Getting involved in your community is a good way to make friends if you’re single. Volunteer or join a local exercise or adult education class that brings you into contact with more people.
Turn off the tv
It’s a particularly solitary pursuit—even if you don’t live alone, zoning out in front of the box every evening doesn’t make for much social interaction with your family. It’s also a passive activity that doesn’t challenge your brain—some recent research has suggested that programs requiring little or no mental engagement, such as the soaps and those ubiquitous reality shows, may cause brainpower to slump.
Use it or Lose it
Your brain is like a muscle, says Dr. Michael Mullan: “If you don’t use it, it gets weaker—but if you exercise it, brain cells continue to form and make new connections all through your life. Mental workouts also help protect against Alzheimer’s by mitigating against any buildup of B-amyloid.” Flex your brain with these simple techniques.
Ressurect Dead Time
Time spent waiting in lines or sitting in traffic can easily be utilized for a mental workout. Recite historical dates; mentally redesign everything you can see; sing a song backwards; listen to audiobooks.
Learn a New Language
It’s been shown to improve memory and introduces your brain to a whole new world of words, often used in an entirely different way to your mother tongue.
Keep a Journal
It clarifies your thinking and exercises your power of recall and creativity. If you’re not into diaries, take a creative writing class.
Do the Opposite
If you’re right-handed try using your left hand to write, eat, brush your teeth, hold the computer mouse or operate the TV remote.
Play Mind Games
Puzzles and word games provide excellent mental stimulation: You’re almost 50 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s if you engage your brain with activities that force you to think, calculate and problem-solve. If you regularly use a computer at home or at work, investigate online mental fitness websites, which offer a range of games and activities.
When you meet someone for the first time, saying their name out loud as you introduce yourself helps you retain the information.
Most studies suggest your brain continues to grow until you hit 30. After this, it gradually starts to shrink in size, by around 10 percent each decade. But don’t panic: its size has nothing to do with function—any decline is more to do with chemical changes in the brain. Your age group takes more risks, so protect your brain by not smoking (over time it increases your risk of dementia) and protect yourself from head injuries by buckling up in your car and wearing a safety helmet if you’re cycling or riding a motorcycle.
Blood flow to your brain is already declining once you enter your 40s and you may find it more difficult to remember details or recall events with the speed and accuracy of yesteryear. Hormonal changes in these decades (a drop in progesterone for women and decreasing testosterone levels in men) can also impact on mental function. It’s time to start your neurobics workout—challenge your brain now, and you’ll help stave off age-related decline.
Side-effects from medication and medical conditions associated with age can affect your brain function, as can head injuries you may have suffered years ago. But don’t write yourself off just yet—over-60s who do Su Doku puzzles and crosswords have been found to have brain function equivalent to people 14 years younger.
—By Kate Brophy
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