4 Steps to a Better Brain
Here’s the latest research on how to keep your cognitive skills strong
1 GUARD YOUR MEMORY
There is no pill or procedure to help you maintain your memories (yet). But researchers have found several lifestyle factors that can affect your brain’s ability to remember. Here is the latest advice.
Be Physically Active A 2017 report by the US National Academy of Sciences determined that fitness may be the best tool we have against cognitive impairment and dementia. And there’s some evidence that exercise can help your brain become healthier in as little as six months. Be as active as you can in daily life: sit less and take the stairs instead of the lift. You should also get 150 minutes a week of purposeful activity – walking briskly, swimming laps, lifting weights and the like.
Do Brain Games Puzzles and games may help your brainpower – but only when it comes to doing puzzles and games. Researchers recommend ‘cognitively stimulating activities’, meaning anything that engages your brain and helps it do new things, explains Dr Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. For instance, your brain might benefit from photography classes, working with technology or researching your genealogy. Even listening to music may help, according to a 2017 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Eat the Mediterranean Way A healthy eating plan that involves piling whole grains, fruit, vegetables, fish, nuts and olive oil onto your plate and cutting back on red meat may help keep your brain in shape. A 2017 study of nearly 6000 people in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society suggested that people who ate this way had a 35 per cent lower risk of cognitive impairment than people who didn’t. This combination of food may seem like a familiar recommendation: scientists are discovering
that your brain and your heart have similar needs. Your taste buds will probably approve, too.
Be Social Doing things in groups seems to make new activities (such as learning a language or taking up painting) even better for your brain. The social aspect also may help you stick with your new pursuit. This is essential because the benefits may fade after you stop doing it.
Manage Your Blood Pressure High blood pressure may damage small blood vessels in the brain, particularly for women. Research published in the journal Neurology found that women who developed high blood pressure in their 40s had a 73 per cent increased risk of dementia compared with those who had normal blood pressure. Be sure to talk to a doctor about how to control it. Marty Munson
2 AVOID ALZHEIMER’S
Science is challenging the idea that nothing you do can lower your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease. While key risk factors – age, race, gender – have been known for a while, recent research has identified other potential contributors. The good news: an estimated one-third to two-thirds of Alzheimer’s cases can be pinned on things under your control. Here’s the latest scientific thinking on managing your risks.
Genes In addition to advancing age, there are genetic risk factors associated with Alzheimer’s, with a gene called APOE e4 being the most significant. The APOE e4 gene creates a protein that moves cholesterol around in your bloodstream. But for some people, the APOE e4 variant has been linked to the build-up of sticky amyloid plaque in the brain, leading to earlier memory failure and brain-cell loss.
Whi le the average age of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is 84 years old for people without the APOE e4 gene, it strikes between eight and 16 years earlier for those with it. In one international study of 27,109 people with Alzheimer’s, just under half had the APOE e4 gene, and nearly ten per cent had two copies.
“Plenty of people with the APOE e4 gene do not develop Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr Jesse Mez, an assistant professor of neurology. “A healthy lifestyle can really make a difference.” Case in point: in a recent large German study of people with the Alzheimer’s gene, keeping cholesterol under control meant a lower risk for mental decline.
Family History Studies suggest having one parent, brother or sister with late-onset Alzheimer’s disease increases your risk twofold to
fourfold. The APOE e4 gene accounts for about 50 per cent of this risk; however according to researchers, other genes may be involved. Lifestyle habits you share with your family may also play a role in getting the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. So make healthy changes together.
A Head Injury in Your Past Moderate to severe head injuries that knock you out for 30 minutes or longer, such as from a car accident, can increase Alzheimer’s risk by 2.3 to 4.5 times. Mild head trauma doesn’t seem to raise the risk. Do what you can to prevent hard falls. In a 2014 Mayo Clinic study of 589 older adults, brain scans revealed higher levels of amyloid plaque in people with mild memory problems who’d had a brain injury that knocked them out.
Diabetes Having high blood sugar doubled the risk of Alzheimer’s in a study that tracked over 1000 people for 15 years. Excess blood sugar harms blood vessels in the brain, while insulin resistance may set the stage for an accumulation of plaques and tangles. In two studies, diabetics who took the medication pioglitazone or metformin significantly cut their risk for developing Alzheimer’s.
Smoking Research shows smokers face a 70 per cent higher risk of getting Alzheimer’s than non-smokers. Tobacco amps up oxidative stress in the brain, allowing cell-damaging compounds called free radicals to run wild – accelerating the build-up of plaques and tangles. Experts point out that arteries become healthier within six months of quitting smoking, which could have brain benefits. Quitting also cuts the risk of strokes, which make Alzheimer’s worse.
Cutting- edge Alzheimer’s research is finding other potential causes of the disease. Common infections such as herpes simplex
virus 1 (the virus that causes fever blisters) and Chlamydia pneumoniae (a bacteria that causes pneumonia) may also trigger the production of plaques and tangles, say neuroscience researchers. Other researchers suspect that an unhealthy balance of gut bugs may play a role by increasing inf lammation. People with Alzheimer’s had fewer types of gut bugs than those without Alzheimer’s in a recent study. Modern hygiene may be knocking out good bugs, contributing to the risk, researchers note. Sari Harrar
3 KEEP YOUR MENTAL FOCUS
Science has confirmed your suspicions: a growing fixation on video screens, and the constantly changing images and messages they provide, may be altering how our brains work. New research is showing that younger brains can process information faster than previous generations, so they can transition from task to task more easily. But older adults may be mentally superior in their ability to focus and learn due to a more resilient and long-lasting attention span.
“That’s the new generat ion gap,” says Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School. “And some of the advantage goes to older people.”
The prime culprit in hijacking attention spans is the smartphone. Checking phones is so prevalent that a global mobile survey found that 61 per cent of respondents said they look at the devices within five minutes of waking up. Beyond phones, video screens are in our living rooms (TVs) and on our desktops (computers), they’re in taxicabs and lifts, waiting rooms and shops.
“The brain starts learning how to switch rapidly from one task to another to another,” says senior professor of neuroscience William Klemm. “It becomes a habit. But this habit conf licts with focused attentiveness.” Because they didn’t grow up with smartphones, older people may be better equipped for serious thinking. “They are often better trained to
be patient with complex tasks,” says Wu. This doesn’t mean older adults have all the mental advantages. The processing speed of your brain starts to decline at around age 24. And with processing decline comes a diminishing ability to switch tasks or manage interruptions.
In coming years, the demands on our attention span will likely grow, as technology enters more of our lives. Avoiding this distracted future – and saving your brain – ultimately starts with you.
Here are five ways to regain your focus.
Grab a Good Novel In one study, subjects who read at night and underwent brain scans each morning showed increased connectivity in the part of the brain associated with language. The neural changes persisted for five days after participants finished the book. Play an Instrument... Or meditate. Or write for 30 minutes. “Focusing on a single complex task improves your ability to focus on other tasks,” says Harvard professor Joe DeGutis, co-author of a study on sustained attention. “Making a habit of these activities can result in ‘attentional state training’, where you are better able to get in a relaxed, focused state for other activities.”
Work in the morning In another study, participants aged 60 to 82 were found to perform better on cognitive tasks and were more focused when tested in the morning compared with the afternoon.
Learn a Language Bilingual speakers are better at maintaining focus and attention than monolinguals.
Volunteer When older adults volunteered to mentor children, it not only
stopped age-related shrinking of the brain, but some brains grew slightly in size. Ken Budd
4 CLEAN YOUR MIND
Your brain consumes as much as 25 per cent of your overall energy. And as with anything that converts fuel into energy, it produces waste. No matter how pure your thoughts, you’ve probably developed a pretty dirty mind by the end of each day.
So how does your brain get rid of waste?
Start with the Basics Studies have indicated that maintaining your blood pressure, getting regular exercise and eating a diet rich in vegetables, healthy fats and antioxidants all have a positive impact on brain cleaning.
Prioritise Sleep Like most cleaning crews, your glymphatic system sweeps waste when the day is done. Your glial cells, which surround brain neurons, shrink when you sleep, explains neuroscience professor Brian R. Christie. “The space between your cells increases by up to 60 per cent. This expansion allows more fluid to be pumped through and drives the clearance of waste from the brain,” he says.
Sleep on Your Left Side Animal studies have shown that your brain does a better cleaning job in the foetal sleep position than on your back or stomach. “The left side appears to be even better for maximising circulation through your body, because most of your venous return travels up the right side, and those veins can compress when you lie on them,” says neurologist Dr W. Christopher Winter. “But don’t lose sleep over it if you’re not a lef t- side – or side – sleeper, if you’re getting good sleep!” Selene Yeager