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Train Your Brain

The most capable computer can’t touch the human brain when it comes to speed, sophistication and capabilities. You spend time babying your desktop or laptop machine – installing software upgrades, defragmenting the drive, and rooting out viruses. But what have you done for your brain lately?

This article lays out simple steps you can take to keep the supercomputer between your ears running at peak efficiency and minimize the changes that occur with age.

Your Aging Brain
We’ve all known an older person who suffered from some form of dementia. Such diseases affect just a minority of elders – between 5 percent and 8 percent of people over 65.

But everyone’s mental skills decline with age, even those of healthy people who don’t have dementia. Cognitive abilities such as being able to quickly compare figures and even verbal skills take a dive as much as 15 years before death, according to a 2008 study published by the American Academy of Neurology.

You’re not off the hook if you’re only 30-something. Although it’s more common in older people, difficulty in recalling well-known details – the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon – can start as early as the fourth decade.

Between age 30 and 90, the brain loses from 15 percent to 25 percent of its tissue, researchers say, and that causes a decline in memory, the ability to learn, and other cognitive processes.

Factors besides aging can also wreak havoc on your mind. One of the worst dangers is smoking. In 2000, London researchers reported that smokers age 65 and over were four times more likely than nonsmokers or former smokers to show significant intellectual decline.

A study published in 2007 in the journal Neurology found that current smokers were 50 percent more likely to develop dementia. Causes may include smoking-induced vascular disease, which reduces blood supply to the brain, and oxidative stress caused by harmful molecules known as free radicals.

Free radicals are waste products produced by normal metabolic reactions as well as exposure to pollution (including tobacco smoke), sunlight and radiation. They damage the body’s cells and its DNA. As we age, our bodies lose the ability to neutralize free radicals, which may be responsible for the mental decline and other degenerative diseases associated with aging.

Despite age and environmental assaults, there’s a lot you can do to maintain your brain.

Move The Body, Boost The Brain
You know the benefits physical activity has for your heart, lungs and waistline. Now scientists know it’s one of the best things you can do for your mind.

Study after study confirms that regular exercise benefits brain function and helps prevent or offset age-related losses.

Some key findings:

  • Older exercisers performed mental tasks more quickly and accurately than their sedentary peers in a 2006 study. Exercise apparently enhances executive control functions such as planning, scheduling, task coordination and multitasking.
  • Brain scans show physical differences in three areas between fit and unfit people over age 55. After age 30 brain tissues begin to shrink. But fitness slows the decline in brain density, according to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences. Older women get even greater cognitive benefit than men.
  • Formerly sedentary people age 60 and over who walked briskly for 45 minutes three times a week saw measurable improvement in their mental abilities.
  • Exercisers enhanced their cognitive speed and ability to focus on sounds and sights, according to a 2008 review of 11 studies. The benefits may be due to improved blood flow to the brain, which increases its metabolism and stimulates neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and new synapses (connections between brain cells).
  • Programs that combine cardio and strength training yield more significant results on brain function than one or the other by itself.
  • Sessions of more than 30 minutes of exercise at a time generate the best results.
Eat Colorful Foods
Mom was right when she nagged you to eat your vegetables.

The most nutritious ones are full of plant chemicals – antioxidants and other goodies – that help your brain and body repair the damage caused by everyday life.

Older people who eat an average of four servings of vegetables each day enjoy a significantly slower rate of mental decline than those who consume less than one serving a day.

Generally speaking, the more intensely colored a plant, the more protective substances it contains. Some of the best choices include:
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Orange, yellow and red vegetables
  • Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts
  • Deeply colored fruits and berries such as strawberries and blueberries
It also looks as though folate (folic acid), a B vitamin abundant in leafy green veggies and citrus fruits, protects the brain.

Researchers at Tufts University found that men over 50 whose diets were richer in folate showed much less decline in verbal fluency over a three-year period. Another study conducted in Switzerland showed that three years of folate supplementation allowed participants to perform like younger people in tests of memory, information-processing and other skills.

Brain researchers at UCLA and elsewhere also note that foods high in omega-3 fatty acids – such as salmon and other oily fish, walnuts, flax seeds and certain vegetables – can improve learning and memory and help fight mood disorders.

Omega-3s confer numerous benefits to the rest of the body as well. If fatty fish and nuts aren’t part of your diet, you can supplement with fish-oil or flax-oil capsules.

What not to eat? Foods high in saturated fats (e.g., fatty beef, butter) and trans fats (almost all junk foods, highly processed foods and packaged sweets) are believed to negatively affect the brain.

Finally, don’t waste your money on DHEA supplements, which some have touted as protective of the brain. A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found DHEA had no beneficial effect on mental function in healthy older people.

Try Something New
Studies show that people whose occupations involve brain work are more likely to retain their mental abilities than those whose jobs don’t require much thinking. In other words, lifelong learning helps protect cognitive skills.

When you learn something new – whether it’s speaking a second language or playing a musical instrument – your brain creates new connections between neurons (nerve cells) adjacent to each other and also between distant neurons. It’s like new software being written in your head.

Research in England and Canada found that the portion of the brain governing language was larger in those who speak more than one language. They also note that learning a language seems to improve nonverbal and other cognitive skills.

Other scientists have created computer-based training programs specifically geared for your brain (see www.positscience.com), and a Japanese doctor has developed a Nintendo game that’s thought to enhance mental acuity.

But you don’t need to buy a program to engage your little gray cells. Play bridge, learn to dance, work jigsaw or Sudoku puzzles, or take up a challenging hobby like growing orchids or gourmet cooking. The only requirements are that the activity provides mental challenge and is highly rewarding.

Take It Easy
What about relaxation, especially if you’re already feeling over stimulated and time-stressed?

University of Washington scientist Jeansok Kim says chronic stress is bad for your brain and interferes with learning and memory. Other researchers believe excess stress may harm the area of the brain known as the hippocampus, which is vital to memory.

The cure could be regularly practicing whole-body relaxation, meditation, deep breathing or repetitive prayer. People who do feel more optimistic, handle stress better, and have fewer stress symptoms, according to a 2003 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine. Those who take up meditation or relaxation methods for eight weeks display positive changes in brain activity – and not just during the 20 minutes devoted to relaxation.

The research suggests that relaxation methods can encourage positive attitude, improve people’s response to stress, and reduce insomnia.

And speaking of sleep: Getting adequate rest is one of the best ways to be good to your brain.

If you have a tough problem that requires a creative solution, sleep on it. That advice is backed up by Harvard Medical School researchers, who say a good night’s sleep doubled subjects’ odds of coming up with the answers to tough mathematics problems. During sleep your brain does a great job of synthesizing discrete bits of information to discover solutions.

That’s why students perform better on tests by getting a good night’s rest than by pulling an all-nighter. Losing a whole night’s sleep impairs judgment as much as being intoxicated, scientists say. And any amount of sleep deprivation reduces mental performance.

Naps can help you keep your edge, especially if your sleep was disrupted the night before. In a study of Japanese men, a 20-minute snooze in the afternoon enhanced mental performance and alertness. Research conducted in New York found similar benefits.

For More Information
Find out more about maintaining a healthy brain at these Web sites.

The Franklin Institute’s “The Human Brain”
www.fi.edu/learn/brain

Eldr magazine’s “Brain Power”
www.eldr.com/article/brain-power

Prevention magazine’s “Brain Games”
www.snipr.com/braingames