11 Ways to Boost Your Brain Powerdate: August 6, 2012
Like other parts of the body that show signs of aging—a softer midsection, weaker muscles—your brain also declines as you get older. And while you can’t put your brain on a treadmill or give it a set of dumbbells to lift, there are some proven techniques that can help keep your brain fit. Even if you feel sharp and clear-headed, these tips can help you strengthen your mental acuity:
- Move more. Exercise increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, and the more blood flow and oxygen your brain gets, the more cells it can form and the more nourishment it can supply those cells, literally feeding your brain. Studies suggest that people who exercise regularly are more likely to have better cognitive skills and memory. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of activity every day, whether it’s a gentle yoga class, a hike or a walk in your neighborhood.
- Get good rest. “Sleep quality and quantity is a key opportunity for better brain health,” says Param Dedhia, M.D., a sleep expert at Canyon Ranch in Tucson. Sleep helps consolidate our memories, improves our attention and soothes our negative emotions. Most of us need seven to nine hours every night; if you’re not getting that, try the techniques in our story Bank a Better Night of Sleep, like reducing artificial light before bedtime and cutting down on caffeine.
- Discover a new hobby. By learning how to do something new, whether that’s a new kind of puzzle, knitting, mah-jongg, playing the piano, dancing or photo editing, your brain generates new neurons and synapses. One study found that learning a second language may increase the density of gray matter in the areas of your brain responsible for attention and memory.
- Find your Zen place. Chronic stress can increase levels of the hormone cortisol in your brain, which can disrupt the activity of neurotransmitters, making it harder for you to access memories you already have or to make new memories. Mindful meditation, massage and yoga are a few ways to reduce cortisol levels, which may improve your capacity to pay attention and boost your memory.
- Keep a food journal. Some people may experience “brain fog” after eating starchy or sugary foods because those foods can cause swings in blood sugar levels, and when blood sugar is too low, the brain doesn’t get enough energy. By paying attention to how you feel one to three hours after you eat, you can identify any foods that may interfere with your brain function.
- Stock up on brain foods. Herbs, spices and green tea contain potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that may protect brain cells from the damage that can be caused by degenerative diseases like dementia. Turmeric, for example, contains a compound called curcumin, which has been linked to a lower Alzheimer’s risk. In addition, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish (like salmon, mackerel and sardines) and flaxseed, reduce inflammation and are important for cognitive skills.
- Live with purpose. Having goals and feeling a sense of purpose in life seems to help people stay mentally fit. One study showed that people who lived life with goals were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
- Be a social butterfly. People with strong networks of friends and families have a lower risk of developing dementia. Just having a conversation with someone can help, so pick up the phone and call your cousin or make plans to meet a friend for lunch once per week.
- Watch your weight. Obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure are all linked to an increased risk of dementia. Talk to your doctor about a healthy body mass index for you and how much you need to eat and exercise to reach that weight.
- Care for chronic conditions. Stay on top of any health conditions you have, and review your medications regularly with your doctor. Some medications can impact memory, so be sure to let your doctor know if you’re experiencing any problems.
- Focus on vitamins. All vitamins and minerals are important for brain health, but research has shown that vitamin B12 is especially beneficial in boosting thinking, reasoning and memory skills. A lack of B12 can lead to demyelination—a loss of the myelin sheath of the synapses between neurons in the brain—which impairs cognitive abilities. Adults should consume at least 2.4 micrograms daily. Meat, fish, fortified cereals and milk are good sources of B12. (For example, a cup of low-fat milk contains 1.2 micrograms of B12.) You should also consume foods that are rich in vitamin B6 (chickpeas and salmon are just a couple of good sources) and folic acid (spinach and fortified cereals). The combination of these three vitamins in the diet has been shown to help reduce levels of homocysteine, an inflammatory protein associated with neurologic inflammation and disease.