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     September 2019

    MAINTAINING YOUR BRAIN

     

    When you consider everything this awe-inspiring organ does for you, it’s mind-blowing.  But caring for it isn’t always top of, well, you know.  To keep it sharp and nimble, learn how to challenge it, what to feed it, and when to let it wander.

    We track our heart rate, exercise our muscles, and protect our skin with sunscreen. Yet despite all the thinking our brain does for us, we rarely stop and think about it.  Our small but mighty command center can simultaneously rehearse a PowerPoint, manage digestion, sync to catch a teetering coffee mug, and contemplate whether perfect love is actually attainable.  Just ponder that for a minute.

    Exactly how the brain gets all that done is a mystery, but our understanding of this three-pound wonder has exploded in the past two decades.  We once thought we were born with all our brain cells, or neurons; now there is evidence that we continue to make more as we age.    We can also build new connections between existing neurons, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity that helps our brain hum along at high efficiency.  Experts are learning more about how our daily choices can benefit the brain too.  Changes that lead to dementia start decades before the first symptoms of forgetfulness.  You can take steps now to protect your brain, for right now and down the road.

    • Connect with Friends. Whether it happens at book club, a cooking lesson, or weeding in the community garden, what can seem like small talk does a world of good.  Social engagement is one of the most important things you can do for brain health. And it doesn’t just give you a long-term advantage, though people who are social do have a lower risk of cognitive decline.  Social ties also buffer us from the effects of the stress hormone cortisol.  That’s good news, since middle-aged adults with high levels of cortisol scored lower on memory and attention tests than subjects with moderate levels.
    • Lighten Your Load. Multitasking is as bad for your brain as smoking is for your lungs.   A surefire by-product is elevated cortisol level which, as mentioned above, can dim your recall and focus powers.  When you multitask, you ask your brain to do two competing things.  It overloads the brain and makes you less efficient.  It’s like having your feet on the gas and the brake simultaneously.  Try to focus on just one thing in its turn, and step way from what you’re doing for three to five minutes a few times a day.  Gaze out the window at that cardinal nest, or simply close your eyes.
    • Eat for Your Mind. There is a way to eat that keeps the brain stoked with what it needs now and staves off future cognitive decline.  Called the MIND diet, it’s a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) regimens; its stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.  Nutrients in the MIND diet have been shown to reduce inflammation, prevent neuron death, and reduce oxidative stress, which can harm neurons.   They also nourish the brain to help it function better day to day.  The key players are omega-3 fatty acids from at least one 3 ounce serving of fish per week; polyphenols, from berries (two ½ cup servings or more per week; wild blueberries are especially potent); and plenty of olive oil’s healthy fat.  The diet also calls for a daily minimum of a cup of raw or half-cup cooked leafy greens (spinach is particularly rich in protective vitamin E) and five weekly one ounce servings of nuts, which are chock-full of B vitamins that neurons love.  Eating this way gives your brain all the macro- and micronutrients it needs for peak performance, period. 
    • Exercise till It Sticks. Busy health experts make fitness a top priority.  Exercise helps massage the brain and lower stroke risk.  It also increases blood flow to the brain, ups its oxygen supply, and reduces inflammation.  In addition, a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, increases.  BDNF regenerates neurons and helps them work better.  Research has shown that even short bursts have benefits, but further findings promote a slow-and-steady approach.  It doesn’t have to be high- or moderate-intensity either.  Tai chi and yoga count. 
    • Explore New Territory. The brain craves novelty.  And it doesn’t get it from a sudoku or brain-training app, which repeatedly recruits the same skills.  It’s like exercising one muscle: that one gets stronger, but your overall fitness doesn’t change.  It’s best to pick up interests that command your full attention and keep developing your skills, like playing a new instrument or learning a foreign language.
    • Prioritize Deep Sleep. When we nod off, the brain’s nighttime janitors come out and mop up the day’s mess.  Cognitive activities require energy and create waste that builds up in the brain.  Among the refuse is beta-amyloid, a protein that forms plaques and tangles in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s-type dementia.  During deep, slow-wave sleep (which gets logged mostly in the first few hours), this gunk gets flushed out.  Studies have linked chronic sleep problems to higher dementia risk.   To get more of that good rest, establish a wind-down routine: stretch, read, or take a hot bath in the half hour before bed.  And if you have symptoms like daytime fatigue or freight-train snoring, get checked for sleep apnea, which affects an estimated 22 million Americans.  Long-term sufferers have been shown to have less white matter, the fibers that help send signals between brain cells.  Patients come in complaining of memory impairment.  Treatment improves it in days.  They often say they feel clearer.  In other words, their brains light right back up.

    Jennifer King Lindley