By Jennifer Newton Reents, R.N.
We all know that physical fitness is an important component for a person’s overall health, including brain health. But there is another vital part of the picture: mental fitness. Here’s how you can help your brain stay as healthy as it can be.
Keeping your mind sharp could help stave off Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, some experts believe. And while there is still no cure, studies that look at ways to delay onset are providing hope.
Work Your Brain
A study in the August 2009 issue of the journal Neurology found that doing cognitive-enriching activities such as crosswords, card games, reading and writing might delay the actual onset of memory loss and the other thinking problems associated with Alzheimer’s.
Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., director of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas, has been researching Alzheimer’s for the last 20 years. In a randomized study of people with early-stage Alzheimer’s, her team found a significantly slower rate of decline in measures of meaningful verbal responses, functional life abilities and global mental function, as well as reduced apathy and irritation, in those who were treated not only with medication, but brain-training exercises. These exercises included discussing current events as well as writing down life stories to read later and trigger recall of the defining moments in one’s life.
“We found mental stimulation over an eight-week period slowed the rate of verbal and functional decline and decreased negative emotional symptoms in Alzheimer’s for up to eight months after treatment had been completed,” she said.
Chapman encourages us to exercise the frontal lobe regions of our brain—the last region to develop, but the first to decline with age, she says. This can be done by deeper-level thinking activities such as interpreting what you read in a book, discussing the “larger messages” in the book and pushing to see how many meanings you can derive. She also recommends focusing on one task for increasingly longer time periods without interruptions—starting with 10 minutes. One activity at a time is better than multitasking, she says.
“As we age, our brain has a harder time dealing with distractions. Brains get stronger by eliminating distractions rather than pushing to overcome them,” she adds.
Melinda K. Baker, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, has been conducting research on people with dementia for the last 15 years. She agrees that engaging in these activities can help:
- Activities that focus attention
- Those that require us to recall factual information and personal memories
- Using math skills and vocabulary
- Solving problems
- Learning new information
- Board games
- Playing musical instruments
- Drawing or painting
All these cognitive pursuits provide different types of stimulation to the brain. She believes that this stimulation strengthens neurons and even creates new pathways between them in the brain, thus building a stronger network that is more resistant to decay caused by Alzheimer’s.
Go One Step Further
Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D., suggests pushing our brains beyond crosswords. “Things such as crossword puzzles, word searches or reading don’t give us the same kind of workout,” says Green, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
Green is the author of three books, including her newest, Brainpower Game Plan, and is president of Memory Arts, LLC, a company that provides training in memory and brain health to corporations, organizations and professionals. “Look for games such as Boggle, Set, handheld electronic games such as Simon, or computer-based games found on sites such as miniclip.com or pogo.com,” she suggests.
Here are some sites that offer good brain workouts, including games, puzzles and other challenges:
Another key to mental fitness is keeping socially active. James Mastrianni, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurology and director of the Center for Comprehensive Care and Research on Memory Disorders at The University of Chicago, suggests finding more opportunities to socialize. “Go to a movie and discuss it in detail afterwards, or enjoy the museum, the symphony or a play. Let your brain experience something new so it can make new connections, enrich it,” he says. “Learn something you always wanted to learn—a language, pottery, painting.”
Dr. Mastrianni says that studies with transgenic mice that develop Alzheimer’s disease show that symptoms were delayed by enriching the cage with mazes, toys and exercise wheels.
Physical activity also benefits brain health. The National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of National Institutes of Health, reports that exercise may be key in increasing brain volume, activity and cognitive function.
One study they conducted used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests to measure changes in brain activity in older adults before and after a 6-month program of brisk walking. The results showed increased brain activity in specific regions as the subjects’ cardiovascular fitness increased.
"Meditation is a scientifically proven method of training the mind, and thereby of changing aspects of your life," says Patt Lind-Kyle, author of Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain.
Meditation and exercise are also beneficial for stress management. The hormone cortisol is released during stress, causes an inflammatory response and may even produce a decrease in immunity. Cortisol also blocks neurotransmitters, halts glucose metabolism (which is needed for proper cell function) and damages cells in the memory center of the brain, says Harold Shinitzy, Ph.D., co-author of Your Mind: An Owner’s Manual for a Better Life.
Change the Way You Eat
NIA reports that foods rich in antioxidants, which fight off the free radicals that make our healthy cells unstable, and those that have anti-inflammatory components affect age-related changes in the brain. One study found that curcumin, the main ingredient in the spice turmeric, suppressed the buildup of plaques in the brains of rodents. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified other spices that have antioxidant properties, including cinnamon, cloves, chili powder and ginger.
Another study, the Institute reports, found that docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a type of omega-3 fatty acid found in fish, reduced plaques on the brains of mice that were specifically bred to have Alzheimer’s disease features. Omega-3s can be found in salmon, tuna, herring, sardines and mackerel as well as flaxseed and walnuts. A study by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) found that diets rich in DHA “dramatically reduce the impact of the Alzheimer’s gene.” However, NIH suggests that more research is needed before specific conclusions about the potential benefits of DHA can be made. So far, Alzheimer’s patients given DHA do not appear to benefit, although some patients may experience very modest benefits. There is also some evidence that omega-3 fats (which include DHA) might prevent or delay cognitive decline in people who have not yet developed dementia.
Among the foods containing antioxidants are:
- Artichokes (cooked)
- Black beans
- Black plums
- Cultivated blueberries
- Pinto beans
- Red kidney beans
- Russet potatoes (cooked)
- Small red beans
- Sweet cherries
- Wild blueberries
Source: The U.S. Department of Agriculture
Healthy Green Veggies
The National Institute on Aging also reports that several studies show the benefits of eating green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and other studies have shown that folic acid might also play a role in maintaining cognitive function.
“Good advice is to follow a heart healthy diet that is low in cholesterol and fats and high in antioxidants, [to include] leafy green vegetables,” Dr. Mastrianni adds.
“The actions that we take physically, emotionally, and mentally can literally expand or contract areas of the brain, depending on the functions that are used most frequently,” explains Lind-Kyle.
Source: www.ALZinfo.org. Author: Jennifer Newton Reents, R.N., Preserving Your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope; Spring 2010.