THINGS THAT ARE GOOD FOR YOUR BRAIN
Brain activity during dreaming increases to a similar level as when we are awake, says behavioral sleep therapist Richard Shane, PHD. That may help you solve problems and boost your ability to cope with struggles and stress. A Harvard Medical School study showed that participants who achieved REM sleep (when dreaming usually happens) were better able to detect positive emotions in other people, while those who did not were more sensitive to negative emotions. The study’s author suggests that dreams help the brain process negative emotions safely. If we fail to dream, then we fail to let go of these emotions and are left in a constant state of anxiety.
In a 2013 study in the British Journal of Psychology, researchers had two groups of people listen to a 30-minute recording that included a sequence of numbers. After listening, the participants were asked to remember the sequence. But only one group chewed gum—and people in that group had higher accuracy rates and faster reaction times than the non–gum chewers. The researchers say that chewing gum increases the flow of oxygen to regions of the brain responsible for attention.
A 2015 review of previously published research showed that less frequent social interaction was associated with a higher incidence of new cases of dementia. Volunteering, visiting with friends and family, and staying active in social groups can help keep your brain healthy as you age.
A recent review of research found that gamers show improvements in the brain regions involved in attention. There’s also evidence that playing video games can increase the size and efficiency of the regions of the brain that control visuospatial skills.
Researchers are even developing video games that can modify regions of the brain that control mood— there’s one video game designed to treat depression. But be careful— video games can also be addictive because of the structural changes they cause in the brain’s reward system.
As if you needed another excuse: Sex may help your brain think better as you age. A new study found that adults ages 50 to 83 who were sexually active scored better on cognitive tests than those who weren’t. Sex may also reduce anxiety and depression and help you sleep, which benefits brain health as well.
Studies show that time off helps you be more productive. “Our brains are not machines that can work endlessly without a glitch,” says psychologist Deborah Serani, Psyd, the author of Depression in Later Life and a professor at Adelphi University. Downtime “allows the regulatory systems of your brain to chill out,” she says.
“Brain-mapping studies show that meditation reduces anxiety, depression, and stress,” Serani says. “Meditation also sharpens attention and improves cognitive functioning.” One study showed that a long-term meditation practice can help save your gray matter from atrophying with age, perhaps because it stimulates the formation of synapses or because it reduces the harmful immune response caused by chronic stress. Another study found that meditation could also improve concentration and memory.
“There’s a long history of research showing that laughter increases feel-good hormones dopamine and serotonin,” Serani says. This in turn decreases pain and improves resiliency.
In one study of adults ages 65 and older, those who exercised four times a week cut the risk of dementia in half compared with those who either weren’t active at all or were active only one day a week. Plus, “exercise at every age has been shown to improve memory, concentration, and other cognitive functions,” says Palinskiwade. This appears to be linked to an increase in circulation, bringing oxygen and nutrients to the brain while also helping remove waste.
A recent study found that older adults who followed the Mediterranean diet—rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and fish—retained more brain cells than older adults who didn’t follow the diet. Another study found that compounds in extra-virgin olive oil, an important part of the Mediterranean diet, “may reduce brain inflammation as well as prevent the buildup of plaque and neurofibrillary tangles, which are suspected to contribute to the symptoms of Alzheimer’s,” Palinski-wade
says. In addition, “DHA and EPA omega-3 fatty acids from salmon and other fish have been found to be protective to the brain and contribute to improved memory function in older adults,” she says.