Staying Sharp

We’ve all heard the jokes about age and forgetfulness, but memory lapses that mess
up everyday living are no laughing matter. If your mind isn’t what it used to be, read on
for five keys to achieving peak mental performance.

By Marissa Candela

April 2007

You snap your fingers, furrow your brow and tap your foot to no avail—you’re drawing a blank, experiencing a frustrating “senior moment.” What was that phone number? What was that actress’s name? And where the heck are those car keys? The answer always seems to be on the tip of your tongue, or just barely hidden behind a veil of mental fogginess.

From common annoyances like forgetfulness and sluggish reasoning to more serious age-related conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, many of us—especially the aging baby boomer population—are wandering through life in a brain haze, vaguely aware that our thinking could be substantially sharper.

This mind-dulling decline can be partially attributed to unhealthy lifestyles, as dubious diet choices, poor stress management, mental passivity and sedentary living all take a heavy toll on peak mental performance. Environmental elements are also culpable, as ubiquitous toxins and pollutants bombard our brains with free radicals that hasten mental deterioration.

Thankfully, mounting evidence suggests that these factors can be countered, and that cognitive decline is not an unavoidable counterpart to aging. Mental murkiness can be replaced with lightning-fast reasoning and crystal-clear memory—by simply adopting commonsense practices. Here, Energy Times outlines these brain-boosting practices with five critical keys to staying sharp:

1. Brain Food

It shouldn’t come as any surprise: the standard American diet is as bad for our minds as it is for our bodies. “The typical Western diet sends one down a path of inflammation, oxidative stress and bad cholesterol,” explains Dr. Michael Ozner, author of The Miami Mediterranean Diet (Cambridge House). All of these factors have been linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Mediterranean diet in particular—which minimizes meat, sugar and processed foods while encouraging fresh fruits and vegetables, olive oil, nuts and a modest amount of fish—seems tailor-designed to neutralize threats to brain health: “The Mediterranean diet brings lots of antioxidants, helps lower bad cholesterol and raise good cholesterol, and is an anti-inflammatory diet,” says Ozner. “All of this can help reduce risk for cerebrovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease.”

A Columbia University study published in the Archives of Neurology (10/06) is the latest to echo Ozner’s assertion. In the study, those who ate Mediterranean-style enjoyed a 68% lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

The Mediterranean meal plan is also rich in essential “good fats” for peak cognitive function and critical building blocks for the brain—which itself is 60% fat. Omega-3s, for example, are believed to raise   levels of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic growth factor), which protects neurons, improves neurotransmission and supports brain structure—all translating into a sharper, healthier brain.

2. Smart Supplements

In addition to absorbing nutrition less efficiently, an aging population often takes more nutrition-depleting pharmaceutical medications. Brain-supporting supplements can help compensate for these factors while boosting mental performance. Folic acid, for example, has shown great promise in staving off cognitive decline associated with aging.

One of the B vitamins, folic acid (also known as folate) teams up with vitamins B6 and B12 to neutralize homocysteine—an amino acid that, when present in excessive levels in the body, has been linked to impaired memory, faulty reasoning and Alzheimer’s disease. A study published in the January 2007 issue of The Lancet found that adults aged 50 to 70 who supplemented with 800 mcg of folic acid daily enjoyed improved cognitive functioning, especially when it came to memory and information processing speed.

For oxidative stress (free-radical damage) associated with mental decline, antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin E and glutathione have been shown to protect neurons. A study in the February 2007 issue of Epidemiology found that as levels of selenium, another antioxidant, decrease with age, cognitive impairment escalates—suggesting that selenium supplementation may be a critical element in keeping the aging population mentally sharp.

To fight inflammation’s role in cognitive decline, try herbal anti-inflammatories such as turmeric, boswellia, ginger and echinacea. Round out your staying-sharp supplementation regimen with the neuron building block phosphatidylserine and the brain-energizing, nerve-rebuilding antioxidant alpha lipoic acid—both have been shown to have a positive effect on patients with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of memory impairment.

3. Social Intelligence

Socialization is another key to keeping the mind sharp. Oftentimes, older folks live solitary lives and have severed the social ties that can keep them mentally alert. Isolation can lead to long-term major depression that can temporarily harm the region of the brain which plays a role in learning and memory, and can even lead to a chronically stressful condition that accelerates both physical and mental aging.

Experts believe that the more socially connected a person is, the more healthy, independent and mentally sharp they’ll be in later years. A study reported in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who engaged in leisurely social activities, such as playing music in a group or dancing, were less likely to have impaired cognitive function. Dancing is especially beneficial to the brain because it combines physical activity, social interaction and memorization.

For those cursed with two left feet, other mentally stimulating social options abound, such as game nights with friends, volunteer work, activity clubs, golfing and continuing education (yoga or cooking classes, for example). Community and senior centers offer their own social agendas, which may include wine tastings, lectures and travel groups. Finally, for animal lovers, pets are people, too—healthy socialization can include adopting a furry friend who also longs for companionship.

4. Muscle Memory

Exercise is as vital for mental performance as it is for physical well-being. “The brain stays sharp by having plenty of oxygen, which metabolizes glucose for mental energy,” explains cognitive researcher Pierce Howard, PhD, Director of Research at the Center for Applied Cognitive Studies and author of the Owner’s Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from the Mind-Brain Research (Bard Press, 3rd Edition). “You can optimize the brain through good circulation and new synapse growth, and aerobic exercise is hands-down the best way to achieve this.”

Aerobic exercise also neutralizes another cognition-clogging force: stress. “Chronic stress is especially detrimental to mental function,” explains Howard. “As stress floods the body with cortisol, initiating the fight-or-flight response, it reduces our mental ability to be creative, to make decisions, to be analytical by up to 90%.” In fight-or-flight mode, the body diverts energy away from mental processing and instead primes itself for peak physical performance.

The cortisol that triggers fight or flight can stay in the body for up to 60 hours; a concept that resonates with the perpetually stressed who feel they’re living in a mental fog. Exercise is the only way to metabolize and eliminate this lingering cortisol. “You’ve got to turn off the cortisol faucet, and then drain the tub,” Howard explains. “Relax to stop cortisol production; then exercise to metabolize cortisol that’s already in your system.”

Similar to omega-3s’ activity, exercise also boosts levels of the BDNFs that are so critical for building, rebuilding and protecting the brain’s neurons: “Aerobic exercise produces neurotrophins, which are like a fertilizer for the brain,” explains Howard. “Neurotrophins promote new synapses and make the neural membranes more supple.”

US researchers have also found, through analysis of brain MRIs, that this exercise-induced brain cell growth may be targeted: blood flow to the region of the brain associated with memory was increased when individuals exercised regularly.

5. Mental Aerobics

Nowhere is “use it or lose it” more significant than in brainpower. But as modern technology increasingly does the thinking for us, many people fall into passive mental states. The cognition-boosting solution lies in challenging the brain with mental aerobics and new learning.
A 2002 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that mental workouts had a tangible effect, as seniors who engaged in brain teasers, crossword puzzles, reading and other active thinking activities had a reduced risk of cognitive decline.

“Mental exercise makes use of the neuronal fibers we’ve formed through physical exercise; it capitalizes on this new growth,” explains Howard. “Learning helps compensate for the nerve cells we lose as we age; in essence, learning is forming and connecting new synapses.”

The more we engage in mental challenges and new learning, the denser the nerve fibers become in the part of the brain associated with those activities. Conversely, if we’re not forming new synapses through mental challenges, the brain falls into a state of atrophy—leading to symptoms of brain fog, memory loss and cognitive decline.

As we exercise certain brain regions we get better at specific activities, but there is a collateral cognition boost as well. “Doing crosswords will encourage other types of word recall,” says Howard. “such as being with friends and trying to remember certain words based upon certain cues.” Naturally, the more diverse the mental challenges are, the more significant overall cognitive improvements will be.

With these five keys in mind, you can keep your razor-sharp edge well into your golden years. But why wait until tomorrow to launch your brain health regimen? Turn the page for brainteasers, puzzles and mental challenges that will give your mind a rigorous workout…and start you on the path to better mental performance right now.

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