7 Ways to Keep Your Brain Healthy
Baby boomers are concerned about many potential health woes associated with aging, but next to cancer, the worry that bedevils them the most is memory loss, a recent Associated Press-LifeGoesStrong.com poll (pdf) shows. More than half of boomers surveyed told pollsters they regularly do mental exercises such as crossword puzzles in an effort to stay sharp.
But experts say that you should take a more multifaceted approach to taking care of your gray matter. Here are a few tools and tips to try.
1. Put on your sneakers.
Riding a bike, walking or going for a run makes you feel good physically, but it also does wonders for your mind, in part by maintaining a healthy flow of blood to the brain. A 2006 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people 65 and older who exercised three or more times a week were a third less likely to develop Alzheimer's Disease than those who had a less strenuous lifestyle. Researchers have theorized that improving the brain's blood flow and oxygen supply may help thwart the buildup of plaque associated with Alzheimer's. "In one study or another, exercise has emerged as the closest thing we have to a magic wand for the brain," New York Times deputy science editor Barbara Strauch writes in her book, The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain.
2. Learn the tango.
As we noted recently in Hot Topics, Johns Hopkins University neurologist and brain researcher Majid Fotuhi, who studies the effects of aging, says his own personal hobby of ballroom dancing is the perfect activity to keep the brain youthful. Taking a dance class not only is good full-body exercise, but learning and remembering the complex steps and moves compels your neurons to form new connections -- as does the socializing before and after.
3. Buy a blood pressure monitor.
As Fotuhi notes in his book, The Memory Cure, studies show that too-high blood pressure in middle age can lead to poor brain function later in life. Researchers also have found that elderly people with hypertension were 4.8 times as likely to develop dementia as those with normal blood pressure. Conversely, keeping an eye on your BP, and making dietary and lifestyle changes or taking medication to control it, can reduce the chances that you'll suffer mental deterioration. A simple digital home blood pressure monitor, which you can get for less than $30, is a good investment in brain fitness. Also, FYI, here's a previous blog post that I wrote about the travails of reducing your sodium intake.
4. Try brain-gym software.
The jury still seems to be out on whether the increasing array of programs designed to exercise your brain have beneficial effects that enhance a range of cognitive tasks, as some researchers believe, or whether users merely improve at playing the games themselves, as a study published last year in Nature suggests. Brain gyms don't seem to have any harmful effects, either, so why not give it a try?
NYT's Strauch touts Brain Fitness, a training program invented by cognitive researcher Michael Merzenich, a member of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Merzenich's company, PositScience, has developed a number of other specialized brain-gym programs, including InSight, which is designed to improve your ability to process visual information -- something that could be valuable to older drivers. Luminosity, another leading maker of brain-gym software, provides an array of brain games on its subscription website (for $14.95 a month or $80 a year), but the company also offers a free app, Brain Trainer, for both the iPhone and Android.
5. Study a foreign language.
A 2004 study by researchers at University College London, described in this BBC News article, found that subjects who spoke a second language had more developed gray matter in information-processing areas of their brains. Language learning apparently taps into the brain's amazing ability to alter its own structure in response to stimulation, an effect known as plasticity.
6. Approve those friend requests on Facebook.
If you've been reluctant to "friend" that old high school acquaintance whom you haven't seen in 30 years, here's a reason to do it. A study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal British Society found that users of online social networking with a lot of people on their friend lists had more dense gray matter in portions of the brain associated with social perception and associative memory. (They also tended to have more friends in real life, which has other benefits.)
7. Pay attention to nutrition.
In addition to brain-exercising activities, you also can help maintain your mental sharpness with the right diet. This 2010 article from the National Library of Medicine details the positive effects of flavonoids, a chemical found in apples, berries and citrus fruits, on both memory and cognitive abilities.
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