Courtesy of Women’s Health
Of all the things we gain with age—wealth, wisdom, children—a sharper mind isn’t one of them. Instead of being a steel trap like it used to be, it’s probably starting to resemble a colander. Life keeps pouring in, but you retain less and less of it.
But researchers are discovering that there are ways to forestall the decline. The secret? Stop taking your gray matter for granted, says P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., chief of biological psychiatry at Duke University’s medical school. “You can add 10 or more years to your brain’s useful life just by paying some attention to it,” he says. Here are 12 everyday tips to boost your brainpower—and then get more health, fitness, and beauty secrets in our new book, Age Erasers for Women!
1. Dance, Dance, Dance!
“Few activities stimulate as wide a variety of brain systems as dancing does,” says Daniel Amen, MD, author of Magnificent Mind at Any Age. “Dancing requires everything from coordination and organization to planning and judgment.” Ditto for martial arts. “Both require you to position different parts of your body simultaneously and in synchronicity—and with dance, you’ve got to move along to music,” says John Ratey, M.D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “That’s a lot of mental stimulation.”
2. Visit the Gym
According to a 2007 Columbia University study, working out at the gym may help you sprout new cells in the dentate gyrus, an area of the brain vital to memory. Researchers measured blood volume in the brains of adults who worked out four times a week for four months and found that all that activity sparks the production of more neurons.
3. Crack Some Eggs
The ideal breakfast is an egg, according to Larry McCleary, M.D., author of The Brain Trust Program. The incredible edible contains B vitamins, which enable nerve cells to burn glucose, your brain’s major energy source; antioxidants, which protect neurons against damage; and omega-3 fatty acids, which keep nerve cells firing at optimal speed. Similarly, McCleary says that the best brain foods are those that would rot if the power went out. Pick fresh fruits, veggies, and lean proteins and avoid the dreaded duo, trans fats (“they diminish brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other”) and high-fructose corn syrup (“it can shrink the brain by damaging cells”).
4. Keep On Moving On
Multitasking is like Kryptonite to gray matter. When you have a crammed to-do list, rather than layer projects, take on one task at a time and change them up every hour. Can’t finish something in 60 minutes? Schedule another slot for it later in the day. “Switching from one project to the next will engage different areas of the brain, keeping you mentally alert,” says Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Center on Aging and the Semel Institute Memory Research Center and the author of The Longevity Bible.
5. Hydrate Your Mind
In a 2006 University of South Florida study, people who drank three or more 4-ounce glasses of fruit or vegetable juice each week were 76 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than those who drank less. The high levels of polyphenols—antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables—may protect brain cells from the damage that may be caused by the disease, says study author Amy Borenstein, Ph.D. Eight six-ounce glasses of water a day will do you good, too. “Your brain is 80 percent water, and if it’s not hydrated, your neurons can’t perform properly,” says Dr. Amen.
6. Take a YouTube Timeout
You can counteract stress—and roll back psychological aging—with laughter. Even the anticipation of a good laugh decreases the stress chemicals cortisol and epinephrine by 39 and 70 percent, respectively, say researchers at Loma Linda University. Laughter is also great for the heart. When participants in a University of Maryland study watched stressful film clips, they experienced vasoconstriction—a narrowing of the blood vessels—while the blood vessels of those watching funny films expanded by 22 percent.
7. Hit the Hay
Getting plenty of snooze time is key to keeping your head on its toes. According to a 2007 study at Harvard Medical School, z’s help memories lodge themselves in your brain (as anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter and then tried to recall important details can attest). The study showed that the brain gathers disparate pieces of information and weaves them into a coherent whole while you’re asleep. Clock seven hours of shuteye, recommends Dr. Amen. “Science shows that people who sleep for seven hours exhibit significantly more brain activity than those who don’t,” he says.
8. Disconnect the cable
A 2005 study published in Brain and Cognition found that for each additional hour per day a person spent watching TV between the ages of 40 and 59, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life rose by 1.3 percent. Top out at two hours a day, recommends Aric Sigman, Ph.D., psychologist, biologist, and author of Remotely Controlled: How Television Is Damaging Our Lives, and consider joining a reading group. “Reading is good for your brain only when it involves storing and retrieving information,” says Dr. Amen. “And the social aspect of book groups adds another dynamic that bolsters cognitive functioning.”
9. Raid the Spice Rack
Sprinkle some rosemary on your entrées and side dishes. The carnosic acid found in this spice has been shown to reduce stroke risk in mice by 40 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry. Carnosic acid appears to set off a process that shields brain cells from free-radical damage, which can worsen the effects of a stroke. It can also protect against degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and the general effects of aging. But rosemary is not the only “mind spice” on the shelf: Cinnamon, turmeric, basil, oregano, thyme, and sage can all protect your brain from inflammation, says neurologist Eric Braverman, M.D., a clinical assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. Shoot for 3 to 7 teaspoons of any combination of these spices each day. “Add a teaspoon of cinnamon to your morning yogurt or coffee,” says Dr. Braverman. “Sprinkle basil and oregano on a sandwich, or stir a teaspoon of rosemary into tea. It’ll add up.”
10. Study Another Language
Parlez-vous français? Non? Then you may find yourself less able to stave off dementia when you’re older. In a 2007 study at York University in Toronto, bilingual seniors kept the worst effects of the condition at bay 4 years longer than those who’d never ventured beyond their native tongue. Learning a second language appears to increase the density of gray matter in the areas of your brain that govern attention and memory, says researcher Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D. During your commute, play some language-instruction CDs, such as the ones from Macmillan’s Behind the Wheel series.
11. Floss Your Teeth
Inflamed, bloody gums can signify bodywide wellness issues. Not only do unhealthy mouths unleash bacteria into the bloodstream, where the bugs can travel to vital organs, but people with gum disease also have worse mental functioning than those whose gums are healthy, according to a U.K. study of more than 6,500 adults.
12. Go Green
Drinking five or more cups of green tea per day can make you 20 percent less likely to experience psychological distress than if you drink less than a cup, according to a new study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
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