With a blood pressure cuff, a scale, and a blood draw, your doctor can tell a lot about the health of your heart. It’s not that easy to do a brain check: There are no simple tools for gauging your gray matter. Scientists can look inside, though, and what they see isn’t always pretty. Age-related brain plaques, which may play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, can start forming in your 40s. And Alzheimer’s diagnoses may nearly triple by 2050, say researchers reporting in the journal Neurology. Keep your brain buff with these tips.
NOURISH YOUR BRAIN
. . .and love olive oil. In a study from Spain, men who ate about 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil a day showed better language comprehension, attention, and abstract thinking than those on a low-fat diet. Its antioxidants (Italian olive oil has the most) may reduce brain inflammation.
“Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables protect your brain from wear and tear and the stress of aging,” says Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center. A 40-year-old guy should consume at least 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of vegetables a day, the USDA says.
The omega-3 fatty acids in fish (or fish-oil supplements) help form the myelin sheaths that line your brain’s “wiring”; their breakdown is a factor in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, says George Bartzokis, M.D., a professor of neuroscience at the UCLA Brain Research Institute.
Drink a glass of red wine every day, and make it merlot. This type has the most resveratrol, an antioxidant that protects neurons from damage, says William J. Tippett, Ph.D., director of the University of Northern British Columbia Brain Research Unit. Dark chocolate has resveratrol too. Try 2 ounces.
PROTECT YOUR BRAIN
The higher your systolic blood pressure is when you’re younger, the more likely you are to lose gray matter in key areas as you age, say scientists at UC Davis. Chronically high BP (above 120/80 mmHg) deprives your brain of blood and nutrients. Have your BP checked yearly after age 40.
In a study reported in Psychological Science, college students who practiced mindfulness — awareness of the moment — for two weeks showed memory improvements. Want in? Find a program that teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction or take a yoga class.
Just 15 to 20 minutes of cardio a day can lower Alzheimer’s risk, says Dr. Small, coauthor of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program. Increased bloodflow helps brain cells communicate better, he says. Strength training works too — focusing on form can give an added boost.
Stress can increase cortisol in your body, says Tippett. This affects memory, learning, and the production of neurotransmitters. Meditation is one proven way to ease anxiety, and it’s easier than you think. Forget about mantras; just sit quietly and try to feel some peace.
Just one concussion can lead to lasting brain damage. Wear helmets with MIPS (Multidirectional Impact Protection System) technology, which minimizes rotational acceleration in crashes. Try the Scott Taal helmet for cycling (or the Red Hi-Fi MIPS helmet for skiing.)
Men in a Kaiser Permanente study who packed on the most abdominal fat by their 40s were the most likely to develop dementia later on. Fat cells increase inflammation throughout your body and brain. Weight training three days a week may be the best way to melt visceral fat.
STIMULATE YOUR BRAIN
You’ll help grow new brain connections. Can’t sing? Keep trying. A mess at chess? Challenge the kids. “As we become older, we tend to do things we’re already good at,” says Tippett, “but you have to step out of your comfort zone to keep your cognitive edge.”
Sign up for a free online class or take courses at a community college. In a study from Germany, people who spent more time on brain-stimulating activities cut their risk of Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment by 62 percent, compared with people who spent less time on these activities.
Learning new things spurs neurogenesis, or brain-cell birth. Try this exercise from Tippett’s Building an Ageless Mind. Write out the alphabet and give each letter a corresponding number, skipping every other letter and every other number. Then below, fill in the skipped letters and numbers so you have two rows.
A/1 C/3 E/5 U/21 W/23 Y/25
B/2 D/4 F/6 V/22 X/24 Z/26
Now, using the corresponding letters, start spelling words numerically. So the word “brain” becomes 2-18-1-9-14. Next, try the words “health,” “exercise,” and “stimulate.” Once you become adept, share your secret code with your spouse. Then leave text messages like 13-5-5-20 13-5 9-14 20-8-5 2-5-4-18-15-15-13.