January 1, 2005
With the new year here, many of us have made resolutions to lose weight, get fit, or otherwise improve our lot. Unfortunately, too many of us let these resolutions slip as soon as the holiday festivities wind down. The good news is, scientists are learning that a few simple lifestyle changes can go a long way in keeping the mind sharp and alert as we age. While there are many factors that we can't control, such as the genes we inherit, these steps may even help to prevent Alzheimer's years down the road.
1. Use it or lose it. The more you challenge your brain and mind, the less likely it may be to fail you. One major study found that seniors who engaged in mentally stimulating hobbies like reading books or playing board games lowered their risk of developing Alzheimer's. The more frequent they engaged in stimulating activities, the greater the benefits. Activities like crossword puzzles, playing word games like Scrabble, studying a foreign language, or learning to play a musical instrument may all help to keep the brain and mental functions sharp and agile into the sunset years.
2. Exercise. What's good for the heart and blood vessels, studies show, is also good for the brain. So get moving! Evidence continues to mount that the more physically active you are, the more likely your brain will benefit. Most recently, a small European study of men in their 70s and 80s found that those who maintained activities such as walking, biking, gardening, or sports over a 10-year period were more likely to remain mentally sharp. Men who had reduced these activities by an hour or more a day during this time, in contrast, were 2.6 times more likely to suffer from mental lapses. The findings parallel an American study earlier this year that found that middle-aged women who remained active and walked a lot were much less likely to suffer from mental decline.
3. Eat smart. To keep the brain (and the heart) in top shape, eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Colorful fruits and veggies such as kale, spinach, broccoli, blueberries, strawberries, and oranges are particularly rich in cell-protecting antioxidants that can fight damage to brain cells. Nutritionists also recommend plenty of fish such as salmon, tuna, and halibut that are rich in fats called omega-3s, which may protect the brain, heart, and blood vessels. Nuts like almonds, pecans, and walnuts are also a plus. Avoid fast foods, processed foods, saturated fats, and fried foods.
4. Don't drink to excess. Although a glass or two of wine or beer daily may boost your heart and brain health, heavy or binge drinking can damage the brain sometimes even permanently. One study found that compared to light drinkers or nondrinkers, heavy drinkers were more likely to have impairments in memory, such as repeating a story or joke to someone they'd already told it to or forgetting to turn off the stove in 10 minutes.
5. See your friends. Maintaining a cherished circle of friends and family throughout the years can boost your mood and help to keep the mind engaged. Even a favored pet, such as a dog that you walk regularly or a cat that or offers comfort, can be key to defusing stress and maintaining physical and mental well being.
6. Relax. This age of cell phones, multi-tasking, and constant environmental stimulation can leave our brains tired and hamper memory. Constant worry can trigger hormones that damage brain cells and leave you feeling tired and distracted. Take time out to focus, concentrate, and de-stress. Enjoy simple pleasures, like listening to a favorite opera or reading a good book. It'll leave you feeling refreshed, alert, and ready to move on in the year ahead.
The Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation offers regular updates and in-depth reports on keeping the mind and memory sharp and fit. Visit www.ALZinfo.org throughout the year for valuable tips and the latest news.
B. M. van Gelder, M. A.R. Tijhuis, S. Kalmijn, S. Giampaoli, A. Nissinen, and D. Kromhout: "Physical activity in relation to cognitive decline in elderly men: The FINE Study. Neurology 2004 63: 2316, December 28, 2004.
Pinder RM, Sandler M: "Alcohol, wine and mental health: focus on dementia and stroke." Journal of Psychopharmacoly," December 2004;18(4): pages 449-56.
Jennifer Weuve; Jae Hee Kang; JoAnn E. Manson; Monique M. B. Breteler; James H. Ware; Francine Grodstein: "Physical Activity, Including Walking, and Cognitive Function in Older Women." Journal of the American Medical Association September 21, 2004;292: pages1454 -1461.
Richard Restak, MD, The New Brain: How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind (Rodale Books, 2003).