Real brain boosters
If you’re truly in need of a brain boost, experts recommend caffeine as a safer and more effective, albeit temporary, bet.
Of course, supplements are only one of several arms of the memory-enhancing industry. There are also videos, games, puzzles, programs and whathave-you currently being marketed. None of these are a problem if people have fun doing them, as long as they don’t ignore measures far more likely to reduce the risk or delay the onset of dementia.
Some of these products may even be helpful up to a point. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix reported in JAMA Neurology two years ago that older people who engage in mentally stimulating activities such as games, crafts and computer use have a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia.
The researchers, led by Dr. Yonas E. Geda, a psychiatrist and behavioral neurologist at Mayo, followed nearly 2,000 cognitively normal people 70 or older for an average of four years.
After adjusting the results for sex, age and education level, they found that computer use decreased the participants’ risk of cognitive impairment by 30 percent, engaging in crafts decreased it by 28 percent, and playing games decreased it by 22 percent.
Geda said that those who performed such activities at least once or twice a week experienced less cognitive decline than those who did the same activities at most only three times a month.
Also helpful is if players participate with other people; social engagement has repeatedly been shown to benefit health and longevity.
Diet and sleep matter
For the most part, playing brain-training games can make you better at the games themselves, but the benefits don’t necessarily translate into improved performance in other activities. Three years ago, the Federal Trade Commission challenged Lumosity’s claim that its games can sharpen memory or brain power in real-world settings. Citing deceptive advertising, the agency said the company offered prizes to consumers who attested to the games’ effectiveness.
What really works to support brain health as you age? Start with the very same foods that can help to keep your heart healthy: a Mediterranean-style diet replete with fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, fish, low-fat dairy and olive oil. In a major study called MIND, seniors who adopted such a diet and limited salt intake had a 35 percent lower risk for cognitive decline as they aged, and strict adherence to the diet cut the risk by more than 50 percent.
At the same time, avoid or strictly limit foods that can have toxic effects on the brain, like red and especially processed meats, cheese and butter, fried foods, pastries, sugars and refined carbohydrates like white rice and white bread, none of which are good for the heart either.
This diet would also reduce the risk of high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, both of which can foster cognitive decline or dementia.
In a Chinese study of 17,700 older adults free of dementia, those who consumed at least three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruits a day were significantly less likely to develop dementia during the next six years.
Finally, don’t skimp on sleep, which gives the brain a chance to form new memories. Researchers suggest striving for seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night.