11 Jul Sharpen Your Brain
Here is your seven-step program to keeping your brain young
By Leslie Pepper
After she turned 50, Gale Sterling noticed she was forgetting things more often than usual. The nuisance of it annoyed her more than anything. “I’d walk into a room and literally forget what I went in there for,” she says. Sterling had been exercising her body since she was a teenager, but decided she needed to add in some workouts for her brain.
She started to do the daily sudoku in her local paper, then she found word puzzles and solitaire on her smartphone, which she would play periodically during the day. “Do they help? I’m not sure, but they amuse me and keep my brain active, so even if they don’t help my brain directly, they relax me and give me something fun to do during the day. So they’ve got to be doing something good,” she says.
Like so many women, Sterling wants to keep her mind as sharp as possible as she ages. And while some may think that getting older is synonymous with losing your mind, so to speak, that’s just not the case. “Cognitive decline is not inevitable as you age,” says Deborah A. Levine, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine at University of Michigan Medical School. “Many strategies are available to keep your brain healthy and functioning well,” she adds.
What are some of those strategies? Let’s take a look.
Eat a Mediterranean diet
A meta-analysis (essentially a study of studies—this one looked at 18 studies done over a 15-year period) found that people who stuck to a Mediterranean diet had slower rates of cognitive decline, reduced rates of Alzheimer’s disease, and better memory and recall. What’s more, the benefits extended to more than just seniors. Two of the studies looked at younger adults, and those studies found that those 19 to 40 improved cognitive functions as well.
A Mediterranean diet includes:
- Plenty of plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and other legumes, and nuts.
- Healthy fats like olive or avocado oil over butter or tropical oils like palm
and coconut oils.
- Moderate amounts of fish and poultry, rather than red meat.
- Moderate amounts of dairy (particularly cultured products like yogurt, kefir, and cheese).
- Plenty of fresh herbs to flavor food.
- Meals enjoyed with friends and family.
- A sensible amount of red wine (for most women, one glass) with meals.
Exercise does more than just improve your physical health. It also helps boost your brain health and can help stave off cognitive decline, including dementia. One study of Americans over 45 found that compared to those who were active, couch potatoes were twice as likely to experience cognitive decline.
How does exercise help? It increases oxygen flow to the brain, reduces inflammation, promotes the brain’s ability to change and adapt (known as “plasticity”), promotes new brain cell growth, and lowers levels of stress hormones. Exercise also improves cardiovascular fitness and improves cholesterol levels, helps balance blood sugars, and decreases anxiety and mental stress, all of which can help keep your brain young.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week. That could be walking around the mall, jogging around your neighborhood, stationary biking in the gym, playing tennis with a friend, skiing with your family, weeding your garden, dancing around your living room with the music turned up—anything that gets your heart rate up.
If that feels overwhelming, listen to this: Even just a little bit helps. One study found that even among individuals who don’t meet the guidelines, just one hour of light-intensity activity was associated with the equivalent of 1.1 years less brain aging, with each additional hour linked to higher brain volume.
Watch your pressure
Forty-seven percent of Americans adults have high blood pressure, putting them at higher risk for heart disease and stroke. But new research shows that it may not be good for your brain health either. A Brazilian study of more than 7,000 middle-aged and older adults found that those with high blood pressure had faster falloff in cognitive performance compared to people who had normal pressure.
Uncontrolled high blood pressure can hamper blood flow to the brain, depriving it of the oxygen, glucose, and other nutrients it needs to fuel itself and function well.
High blood pressure has no symptoms, so it’s important to know your numbers. Get your pressure checked at least every two years, and more often if you’ve had high blood pressure in the past.
To control your pressure:
- Watch your weight.
- Exercise regularly.
- Follow a heart-healthy diet.
- Quit smoking.
- Lay off the saltshaker. Experts recommend that Americans consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day.
- If your doctor has put you on blood pressure medication, take it regularly.
Fraternize with friends
Strong social ties have long been associated with a lower risk of dementia, says Dr. Levine. “One theory is that social ties increase social activity, which is stimulating to the brain. Also, people with social ties might be more active in leaving the home and more likely to participate in other cognitively stimulating activities,” she adds.
Unless you’re at high risk or unvaccinated against COVID-19, you can socialize in person. (Keep up to date with the current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Volunteer at your local election board or animal shelter, join a bridge club or gardening group, or sign up to walk a local charity walk with a walking group. If you don’t feel comfortable mingling in larger groups, make sure you continue to connect with friends one-on-one, whether for a walk in the park or a video chat.
In the short term, good sleep can help you think more clearly and improve your mood. And good sleep is associated with a lower risk of dementia, says Dr. Levine.
To rest your best:
- Keep it cool, dark, and quiet. Set your bedroom thermostat between 60 and 68 degrees.
- Stay consistent. Go to bed at about the same time every night and wake up at about the same time every morning—and yes, even on weekends and vacations.
- Stay active at the right times. Exercise and light physical activity can help promote sleep. But be sure to finish at least a few hours before bed so you’re not revving all night.
- Relax in a warm (or even hot) shower or bath about an hour before turning in. As you cool off, your body will get the signal it’s time to sleep.
Research suggests that smoking increases your risk of cognitive decline. While researchers don’t know exactly why, one theory is that since smoking contributes to small-vessel disease in the brain, this adds to deterioration.
Yes, it’s hard to quit. But with a little help, you can do it. Set a quit date, then tell family and friends, to keep you accountable. Ask your doctor about medications that reduce nicotine cravings, and consider counseling (available at 1-800-QUIT-NOW or smokefree.gov). Note that using both counseling and medication is more effective than using either one alone. And if anyone around you smokes, encourage them to stop—or stay far away from them.
Work your brain
Gale Sterling has got the right idea. Activities like brain teasers and crossword puzzles can improve memory, concentration, and focus and possibly stimulate new connections between nerve cells. And anything that helps you unwind and recharge can help you think more clearly in the day-to-day.
Challenge your brain in new and novel ways as often as possible.
- Take a different route to walk your dog.
- Do a jigsaw puzzle.
- Try an app like BrainHQ, which has brain-training games that are backed by decades of neurological research.
- Learn a new language.
- Play online card games.
- Take a class (any class!) at a local community college.
- Read a book.
- Paint, draw, or scrapbook. DW
Leslie Pepper is a freelance writer who specializes in health and wellness.
For questions or concerns relating to Alzheimer’s or dementia, help is always available via the confidential and free 24/7 helpline of the Alzheimer’s Association at 1-800-272-3900, or visit alz.org.
Are Communities of Color More Affected by Alzheimer’s?
Unfortunately, the answer is yes. Currently, there are an estimated 5.8 million people in this country who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, and that number is expected to rise to about 14 million people by the year 2060, with minority populations being affected the most. Cases among Latinos are expected to rise seven times over today’s estimates, while cases among African Americans will increase four times over today’s estimates.
Why the disparity? Certain conditions may play a part. “African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to experience higher incidence of chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes, all of which may raise the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia,” says Beverly Berry, director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at the Alzheimer’s Association.
Add to that, communities of color are more likely to face lower levels of education, higher rates of poverty, and greater exposure to adversity and discrimination, which may increase risk. People of color tend to be diagnosed at a later stage of dementia, which limits successful treatment options. And finally, people of color are underrepresented in current clinical treatment trials, which may make treatment options less effective for them.
What can women of color do about this? Berry suggests the following:
- Adopt healthy habits to improve your overall health, such as a healthy diet and increased physical activity.
- Explore opportunities to participate in a clinical trial.
- If you notice any changes in your memory, thinking, or behavior, act immediately. Have a conversation with a health-care provider for a thorough evaluation, a possible diagnosis, and a discussion of treatment options.