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Keeping your brain healthy

Young man watching an older couple play chess

Because our cognitive functions peak at age 30, it’s very important to do all we can to keep our brains fit as we age. Like our bodies, there are many things we can do physically, emotionally, and nutritionally to keep our brains healthy.

Keep Moving

Keeping our hearts pumping and blood flowing through aerobic exercise is as important for our brain health as for the rest of our body.

Walking, swimming, tennis, and other fun activities not only help your heart stay healthy, but keep your brain healthy by boosting neural growth and synapse connectivity, which are essential for memory.

Twin studies indicate that the twin who participates in moderate exercise in midlife has less risk of dementia in old age than the twin who doesn’t exercise.

Donald Stuss, president and scientific director of the Ontario Brain Institute, says staying active dramatically cuts the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 40 percent. The institute commissioned a study that determined that exercise minimizes symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, such as depression, and that exercise can actually stave off the disease. According to Stuss, exercise creates new cells in the hippocampus, one of the areas of the brain responsible for memory, and also an area first affected by Alzheimer’s.

“The best advice I can give to keep your brain healthy and young is aerobic exercise,” says Stuss. Exercise increases brain plasticity while minimizing vascular problems that can exacerbate Alzheimer’s.

It is important to exercise regularly throughout your life—the earlier the better. But, it’s never too late. Regular exercise is beneficial even if you have already been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s because it reduces stress and anxiety and improves quality of life.

Every little bit helps.

Stop Stressing

Exercise also lowers your stress levels. Chronic stress causes inflammation and abnormal deposits of proteins in the brain. The stress hormone cortisol depresses the growth of nerve cells and their connectivity.

According to Dr. Philippa Cheetham, Columbia University Medical Center, a recent British study of 1,500 middle-aged women suggests that repeated periods of stress can cause a 64 percent increased risk of developing dementia. The inflammation associated with chronic stress causes numerous health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and dementia.

Yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques, and diaphragmatic breathing are all good ways to lower stress.

Feed Your Brain

We know that eating right just makes good sense. It’s also important for brain power. Foods that are good for your heart are also good for your brain. Foods high in antioxidants, such as colorful fruits and vegetables and some beans, whole grains, nuts, and spices, may be especially good for the brain.

It is also important to minimize consumption of saturated fat, stop smoking, and drink in moderation. For best nutritional practices, follow the dietary guidelines from the American Diabetes Association.

Challenge Your Brain

You’ve heard the saying: “If you don’t use it, you lose it.” We now know that people generate new brain cells and new connections throughout life. The more mental reserves you build up, the better your ability to stave off age-related cognitive decline over the years.

There are several fun and easy ways to challenge your brain. Late neurobiologist Lawrence Katz coined the term “neurobics” to describe ways to engage different parts of the brain by switching up the unconscious way we do everyday tasks. He suggested brushing your teeth and dialing the phone with your non-dominant hand or doing activities with your eyes closed.

Playing crossword puzzles, brain teasers, and even video games are entertaining ways to get your brain in gear. Learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, playing cards, and interacting socially are all fun and rewarding ways to increase neural pathways and keep your brain healthy.

Physical activity, stress reduction, healthy eating, and learning new skills are just some of the ways to ensure that you protect your brain as you age. For more information about boosting your brain health, visit:

http://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-08-2008/noodle_boosters.html

http://www.alz.org/we_can_help_brain_health_maintain_your_brain.asp