Some believe the jury is still out on the merits of memory food — all the preventative measures seniors can use to protect their brains from the ravages of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately, recent evidence is proving otherwise.
So, what’s changed? Instead of viewing these strategies from a “move it or lose it” perspective, scientists have found that boosting cognitive prowess, thanks to a steady diet of mental training along with better nutrition, sleep and exercise habits, may be the ticket to protecting your brain and bolstering the health of an aging nation over the long haul.
The benefits are obvious: Alzheimer’s disease currently affects up to 4.5 million Americans, and is headed on a devastating course to more than triple that number to some 16 million by 2050 if preventative measures aren’t taken. The current annual price tag attached to this devastating disease and other dementias: More than $148 billion in America alone.
What follows is a list of common-sense recommendations that may bolster the health of your brain and body, all without taking a single drug.
Sleep On It
Getting the right amount of sleep every day does wonders for your health in so many ways, not to mention improving your memory. For example, a recent study demonstrated how cellular changes in the sleeping brains of animals promote the formation of memories. In another important study, senior African-Americans who reported sleeping difficulties fared far worse on memory tests than those who had no trouble falling asleep.
What’s more, sleep can help your brain learn complicated tasks — Ever try playing Halo with your child on his or her PlayStation the second time — and recover what you thought was lost information after eight hours in the sack.
These tips, among many from the Mayo Clinic, can help you get the right amount of sleep every night:
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Keep your bedroom as cool, comfortable and dark as possible.
- Maintain the same sleep schedule every day, including weekends.
- Taking a 90-minute daytime nap speeds up the consolidation of long-term memory.
Exercise Your Memories
Reports have also linked an ongoing exercise regimen — even devoting as little as 2.5 hours each week to walking — to improved memory and cognitive skills.
Columbia University researchers believe exercise really hits the “sweet spot” of the brain in the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus (where normal age-related declines in memory begin for adults at age 30). Using MRI imaging, scientists observed the improved growth of neurons, a process known as neurogenesis, in the human brain after exercising (previous research on mice reached the very same conclusions).
Some suggestions to help you start moving in the right direction today:
1. Meet with your doctor to develop the exercise program best suited for your body and mind. And, while you’re there, have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked.
2. Walking is a good way to start moving immediately and to improve your cognitive functioning, but don’t skimp on the details.
3. Make fun a priority in any exercise program.
Eat for Your Brain, Heart and Body
As detrimental as consuming fatty, sugary foods can be to your health, a heart-healthy diet can be the gift that keeps on giving to your body — allowing oxygen and nutrients to flow freely through your bloodstream — and to your brain.
For example, nutrient-rich foods containing phytochemicals have been shown to reverse age-related memory problems in animals. Fact is, there’s seemingly no limit to the good foods chock full of vital nutrients, including omega-3 fatty acids (like those food in fish), vitamin B6, vitamin B12 and vitamin E, beta carotene and antioxidants.
Just a few of the many healthy-for-your-mind food options at your disposal:
- Fish containing essential omega-3 fatty acids
- Antioxidant-rich cherries, blueberries and red apples
- Green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and mustard greens
- Cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli, cabbage and Brussels sprouts.
- Flavonoids found in chocolate, wine and tea
Play Games With Your Brain
Probably, the most enjoyable aspect of memory food is the fun you’ll have exercising your brain by being more mentally active. Just the variety of activities waiting to be pursued — from sedentary pastimes like reading, to learning a new hobby and the skills that go with it, to playing games — is almost endless.
What’s more, the payoff from mental exercise, according to a 2006 study of 2,800 seniors, may last five years, if not longer.
The real trick, experts say, isn’t getting people started: It’s keeping them motivated. Much like increasing the speed on the treadmill at your neighborhood gym to improve body strength and endurance, training your brain requires increasingly tougher challenges.
But, it doesn’t mean you’re stuck playing Sudoku, chess or any kind of expensive game just to keep your brain active and alert. There’s, plenty of free resources available on the Internet, and you won’t have to download any software to play them (even AARP devotes a page on its Web site to free games and puzzles). Have some fun, test your memory and train your brain at the same time by visiting these Web sites:
Free Brain Games.com
60 Second Brain Game.com
Switched.com: Top 11 Free Brain Games
The Problem Site.com