Worried about fading brain power? If you're older than 27, you have good reason. That's the age when cognitive skills start to decline, according to new University of Virginia research. But while some changes in thinking and memory are inevitable as we age, the good news is that lifestyle seems to be able to blunt those effects -- and keep many minds working sharply well into old age.
That's reassuring, given headlines from the Alzheimer's Association's new annual report showing that every 70 seconds, someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer's (the most common form of dementia).
Debilitating memory loss doesn't happen to everyone, though. Learn what you can do to preserve yours.
1. Take the stairs: Exercise benefits your head as much as the rest of your body, a growing number of studies indicate. Overall cardiorespiratory fitness also lowers the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular problems -- all known risk factors for Alzheimer's disease. Theories on why that's so range from improved blood flow to the brain to less brain shrinkage.
Experts recommend making regular aerobic workouts part of your routine. Failing that, it appears that even small efforts add up. So avoid elevators. Park at the far end of the parking lot. Start by walking around your block in the evenings, and add a few minutes more each day.
2. Change your wallpaper: When doing routine things, the brain runs on autopilot. Novelty, on the other hand, literally fires up the brain as new data creates and works new neural pathways.
So shake up what you see and do every day: If your computer screen background is "invisible" to you, run a program that mixes it up every day or every hour. Take a different route home from work. Brush your teeth with your nondominant hand. Buy, borrow, or download a book that makes you think about new ideas.
3. Steal some zzz's by daylight: It's while you're sleeping that your brain sorts, consolidates, and stores memories accumulated during the day -- that's why eight hours at night is so valuable. But a mere six-minute nap is as valuable as a full night's sleep to short-term recall, according to German research. And a 90-minute nap has been shown to speed up the process that helps the brain consolidate long-term memories.
4. Take a mental "photograph": Memories aren't just stored in one spot in the brain; bits of data are processed and stored in different areas. To help make the memory of an incident last, take a "snapshot" of it while you're in the moment, using all your senses. Look around and think about what you see. Notice colors and textures. What do you smell? If you're eating or drinking (or kissing), what's the taste?
This "mental camera" trick can help you hang onto a happy memory longer. But it can also help you remember where you parked your car.
5. Eat less: After only 12 weeks, healthy volunteers (average age 60) who reduced their daily calories by 30 percent scored 20 percent better on memory tests, University of Munster (Germany) researchers reported in January. The possible reason: decreased levels of insulin, created when the body processes food, and of the inflammation-associated molecule C-reactive protein. Both factors are linked to improved memory function.
The people in the study were cautioned not to consume fewer than 1,200 calories a day. If cutting back on your diet by nearly a third seems too daunting, focus on eating less fat, meat, and dairy products. Earlier this year, Columbia University Medical Center researchers reported that in a long-term study of more than 1,300 participants, those with the highest adherence to a Mediterranean diet -- rich in vegetables, legumes, fish, and monounsaturated oils (like olive oil) but low in fat, beef, and dairy -- had the lowest risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease.
6. Try a "brain-training" game -- or join a "brain gym": The science is promising, if not conclusive, as to whether so-called brain-fitness software can actually improve memory. A study in the April 2009 Journal of the American Geriatric Society shows that people over 65 who used a computerized cognitive training program for an hour a day, over a period of eight weeks, improved memory and attention more than a control group.
7. Spend some time online: Neuroscientist Gary Small, director of the UCLA Memory & Aging Center and author of "iBrain," says searching the Web is a bit like using a brain-training course. His researchers used MRI to measure brain activity in Web users ages 55 to 76; the net-savvy users showed twice as much brain activity, especially regarding decision making.
8. Stop and sip a cuppa: Green and black teas have a protective effect on memory, possibly by influencing enzymes in the brain. The caffeine sparks concentration, too. And people who drink moderate amounts of coffee at midlife -- as many as three to five cups -- have lower odds of developing dementia in late life, Finnish and French researchers say.
Another benefit: Taking a coffee or tea break in your day (or three times a day) is a good opportunity for destressing.
9. See a doctor if you feel depressed: Maybe it's "just a mood." But untreated depression is common and can impair memory. Talk therapy and/or antidepressant medication can resolve the problem. Two red flags worth mentioning to a physician: a loss of interest in things that once gave you pleasure and a persistent sense of hopelessness.
People at higher risk for depression include caregivers of older people and those who have a family history of depression.
10. Take the "multi" out of your tasking: Especially when they're trying to learn something new, people remember less well later if they were multitasking while learning, UCLA researchers have shown. If, for example, you're studying while listening to the radio, your memory recall may be dependent on the music to help you later retrieve the information during the test -- except, of course, that you can't usually replicate the same circumstances (like music during a test).
Try to learn something new -- reading a contract or directions, copying a skill -- when you can give it your full concentration. Cut out distractions like the TV in the background or pausing every few seconds when you hear the "ding" of your e-mail or text-message inbox.For information and advice for caring for an elderly relative.
11. Keep your blood sugar under control: If you're diabetes-free, work to maintain a normal weight and follow a balanced diet to reduce your odds of developing the disease. If you're a type 2 diabetic already, follow medical advice for managing blood sugar levels.
New research shows that brain functioning subtly slows as diabetics' blood sugar rises and the blood vessels that supply the brain are damaged. This process begins well before memory problems become obvious, or even before there's a diabetes diagnosis.
12. Waggle your eyes back and forth: To help you remember something important, scan your eyes from side to side for 30 seconds. This little exercise helps unite the two hemispheres of the brain, say researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University in England. When the two hemispheres communicate well, you're better able to retrieve certain types of memories.
13. Eat your green vegetables: There's no such thing as an "anti-Alzheimer's diet." But people who are deficient in folate and vitamin B12 have an increased risk of developing dementia. (The research is iffy, in comparison, on the benefits of taking so-called memory enhancers: vitamin C supplements, ginkgo biloba, and vitamin E.)
Great vegetable sources of folate include romaine lettuce, spinach, asparagus, turnip greens, mustard greens, parsley, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, and beets. For you vegetable haters, the nutrient is also abundant in lentils, calf's liver, pinto beans, and black beans.
14. Don't ignore sleep apnea: People with sleep apnea -- a condition involving blocked airways that causes people to briefly stop breathing during sleep -- show declines in brain tissue that stores memory, researchers at UCLA reported last year.
More than 12 million Americans have obstructive sleep apnea. If your doctor has suggested you have the condition, be vigilant about trying treatment, which can include wearing oral appliances and "masks," losing weight, and surgery.
15. Learn something new that's a real departure for you: If you're a sudoku fan, you might think a good way to stretch your mind would be to take up a different Japanese numbers game, like kenken or kakuro. But an even better strategy for a nimble brain is to pursue a new kind of activity using skills far different from those you're accustomed to using.
If you ordinarily like numbers, try learning a language. If you're an ace gardener, try painting flowers instead.
16. Quit smoking: The relationship between smoking and Alzheimer's disease is hazy. But smokers do develop the disease six to seven years earlier than nonsmokers.
In case you were looking for another good reason to quit.
17. Eat some chocolate! Every year some study extols the virtue of dark chocolate, and the effects of this wonder-food (or, at least, wonderful food) on memory have not gone ignored by researchers. In 2007, a Journal of Neuroscience study reported on the memory-boosting effects in rats of a plant compound called epicatechin, possibly because it fueled blood vessel growth.
In addition to cocoa, epicatechin is found in blueberries, grapes, and tea.
18. Put everything in its place: While novelty is like growth hormone to the brain, your memory needs a certain amount of familiarity to keep your life functioning smoothly. Place your keys and glasses in the same place all the time. Write notes to yourself as reminders (the very act of writing will help your recall). If you want to remember your umbrella tomorrow morning, place it right at the door, so you won't miss it.
19. Don't retire: Good news for those who can no longer afford to quit: Provided you like your work, you're helping your brain by sticking with it as long as you can. A satisfying work life offers social stimulation and decision-making opportunities -- and exercises problem-solving skills.
Next best: Volunteering, such as at a school or museum, where your training involves learning new material and the task involves interacting with others.
20. Throw a party: Being around other people lowers one's risk of developing dementia. The catch: They should be people you enjoy who make you feel engaged and stimulated. People who are physically isolated (not around people) or emotionally isolated (around people but feeling lonely nevertheless) are at higher risk for depression.
Just go easy on the alcohol at those parties. Studies on its effect on memory are mixed. Long-term, excessive drinking is clearly linked with dementia. Binge drinking also impairs short-term memory. On the other hand, for people who drink moderately (one drink a day), alcohol may have a protective effect. One study found that in people with mild cognitive impairment (mild memory loss that doesn't necessarily advance to dementia), those who drink less than one drink a day progressed to dementia at a rate 85 percent slower than teetotalers who didn't drink at all.
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