By Lisa Turner
Maintain Your Brain: seven science-backed habits to protect mental function
As our brains grow older, accumulated damage exacerbates normal age-related changes, impacting clarity, memory, concentration and cognitive function, and increasing the risk of neurodegenerative disease. Fight back: maintain your smarts and minimize the effects of aging with seven science-backed habits that help your brain stay fit, focused and finely tuned for the rest of your life.
- Learn to dance. A sedentary lifestyle is linked with diminished brain function, and studies show regular physical movement significantly enhances cognitive health during aging. Almost any kind of exercise supports the brain; but for targeted (and fun) results, try dancing. The challenge of learning choreographed steps and patterns stimulates neural activity and sharpens memory. Plus, lively dance moves boost circulation, encouraging blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain. And listening to music is shown to engage areas of the brain associated with reasoning, improve memory and uplift mood.
- Feed your head. Dozens of studies show foods high in antioxidants and brain-nourishing nutrients minimize cognitive decline and significantly lessen the risk of age-related neurodegenerative diseases. Keep blood vessels supple and strong, reduce inflammation and protect your gray matter from neuron-damaging free radicals with brain-supportive eats. Emphasize berries and other fruits, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables and legumes, and add healthy fats from wild salmon, sardines, nuts and olive oil. All are rich in nutrients shown to slow mental decline, increase memory and learning, and enhance overall cognition during aging.
- Kick out brain drains. Along with feeding your head: eliminate foods known to hamper cognitive performance and amplify the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Packaged, processed foods are loaded with sodium, linked with elevated blood pressure and higher rates of mental impairment. Plus, many contain trans fats (also found in margarine, fried foods and commercial baked goods) that fuel inflammation and significantly heighten the likelihood of cognitive disorders. Sugary treats—soft drinks, cookies, candy, pastries—harm cognitive function and speed brain aging. And too much red meat increases brain levels of iron, shown to exacerbate the risk of Alzheimer's. Stick to whole, unprocessed eats, and snack on berries—associated with better cognitive health as the years pass.
- Snooze more. During sleep, the body repairs cells, consolidates memories and flushes out toxins involved in neurodegeneration. Lack of shut eye impacts decision making, learning and memory, and research links chronic sleep deprivation with higher levels of inflammation. Losing even one night of slumber boosts levels of beta amyloid, a protein associated with cognitive decline and Alzheimer's. Aim for seven to eight hours a night; keep your bedroom cool and completely dark—electric lights suppress the production of snooze-inducing melatonin. Avoid electronics at least two hours before bed; computers, tablets and other devices emit blue light that disrupts restful slumber. If you struggle with sleep, try melatonin; studies also point to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Stress less. Worry, tension and ongoing angst dampen mood, elevate blood pressure and disturb sound sleep—all key to healthy cognitive function. Stress also impairs memory and mental acuity, and chronic tension and anxiety are linked with accelerated cognitive decline and a higher risk of neurodegenerative disorders. Calm your mind, with simple breathing and relaxation practices. Or try meditation; a regular routine is shown to significantly ease psychological distress, and research suggests it can protect against Alzheimer's-related changes in the brain.
- Sharpen the saw. Use it or lose it: studies show learning new skills protects neurons, optimizes brain health and reinforces cognitive function as the years pass. Brain nerves wither with age and disuse, and problem solving promotes neurogenesis—the formation of new neurons in the brain. Flex your mental muscles with new experiences: master a different language, learn to play chess, read challenging books. Or sign up for salsa or ballroom dancing; besides challenging your brain, you'll exercise your body and make new friends. But keep it fresh: once skills become rote, move on to a new activity to continue stimulating your brain.
Is a chef, nutritionist, researcher and book author with more than 25 years of experience in the field of food, health and nutrition. After earning her master's degree in journalism, she worked for the Los Angeles Times and other leading dailies and weeklies. She is the author of five books on health and nutrition. She is also a second-degree black belt and instructor in Ninjutsu martial arts, and is developing a national program to train young women in self-protection. You can reach Lisa at: inspiredeating.com or follow her on Facebook @inspiredeatingnutrition or Instagram: @inspiredeating