4 Steps to a Bet­ter Brain

Here’s the lat­est re­search on how to keep your cog­ni­tive skills strong

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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

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