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The Healthy Brain

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Who doesn’t want a healthier brain? We all want a brain that thinks clearly, works quickly, and concentrates intently through the years. We also want an agile mind capable of storing and processing vast amounts of information, from the everyday (your shopping list, the punch line to a joke, your ATM PIN) to the complex (balancing your checkbook, learning to tango, speaking Japanese). But while some people’s brains seem to have a natural capacity for remembering sports statistics, television trivia, or historical facts, most of us recognize that there’s some room for improvement where our cognitive capabilities are concerned.

Not so long ago, scientists regarded memory problems and cognitive decline as inevitable consequences of aging. This view is changing, as more and more studies show that you can take steps to preserve your memory and keep your mind sharp throughout life. What’s more, it now appears that genetics account for only one-third of an individual’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Your environment and the lifestyle choices you make on a day-to-day basis account for two-thirds of the risk, giving you more control over your brain’s future health than you may have thought possible.

The earlier in life that you adopt brain-protective practices, the better, since the abnormal protein deposits (amyloid plaques) and tangles of nerve fibers that accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients may begin forming decades before symptoms first appear. Dietary and other lifestyle measures can address several factors that undermine brain health, including chronic inflammation (Alzheimer’s begins with inflammation in the brain), oxidative stress from free radicals, and chronically elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Healthy living can also help prevent cardiovascular disease, an all-too-common problem that can reduce blood supply to critical areas of the brain and frequently contributes to dementia.

Even your attitude toward aging can affect your memory: older people who were shown negative words about aging, like senile, before taking memory tests did worse than those who were shown positive words, like wisdom. Likewise, in China and other cultures with a more positive view of aging than ours, older people performed better on memory tests.


Engaging your brain appears to be a key protective strategy. The more education you have, the less likely you are to experience age-related cognitive decline or to develop Alzheimer’s disease. If you do experience these conditions, they’ll more likely appear later in life for you than for people with fewer years of education. The reason may have to do with “neural redundancy,” the number of extra connections between nerve cells in the brain. Learning creates new connections between brain cells, and many of these connections duplicate existing pathways. The more connection you have, the more you can afford to lose if some degenerative process should occur.
An advanced degree isn’t necessary. The important thing is to keep challenging your mind. Learning a new computer-operating system and learning a foreign language are two of the best ways to challenge your mind. Here are many more possibilities:
• Solve crossword, Sudoku, or jigsaw puzzles.
• Play cards, chess, word games (like Scrabble), and knowledge games (like Trivial Pursuit).
• Join a book club or study group.
• Express yourself by writing, painting, making music, or dancing.
• Attend lectures, plays, and concerts.
• Visit museums.
• Travel to new destinations.
• Volunteer for a cause you care about.
• Take classes at a local adult-education center or community college.
• Start a new hobby, whether it’s collecting stamps, woodworking, or bird-watching.
• Do more math by making simple calculations in your head, balancing your checkbook without a calculator, or preparing your own taxes.

Because inflammation and oxidative stress can undermine brain function, eating an anti-inflammatory diet that is rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids can help you keep your wits about you. To add “brain food” to your diet, you’ll want to consume more of the following:

Omega-3 oils. People who eat fish regularly are less likely to experience cognitive decline or develop Alzheimer’s. The omega-3s in oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, herring, and black cod, help to reduce inflammation, and one of these healthy fats—DHA—is essential for normal brain function. Vegetarian sources of omega-3 fatty acids include walnuts, flax seed (preferably freshly ground), and hemp seeds.

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