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A Dozen Tips for Maintaining a Healthy Brain
| published November 20, 2014 |

By Earl Perkins
Thursday Review features editor

You most certainly will get older, but you're not obligated to let your mind and body totally fall apart, according to the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide.

All brains change with age, and as a natural process your mental function will also change. Mental decline is common—and feared by millions—but cognitive impairment isn't always inevitable. Harvard Health Publications advocates 12 ways to keep your brain young and fight age-related memory loss.

Stimulating your mind is probably one of the most important things you can do to help yourself—right up there with physical exercise and good diet. This will help build up your brain, so you should read, take courses, and maybe doodle with word puzzles or math problems. Please also consider drawing, painting and other crafts, because they require manual dexterity and mental effort.

There is a very strong possibility that brainy activities stimulate new connections between nerve cells, which may create the possibility the brain is generating new cells, according to research performed on mice and humans. These exercises could develop neurological plasticity and build a functional reserve, thus providing a hedge against future cell loss.

Getting physical exercise of some kind is also extremely important if you wish to delay the aging process. There's a fair chance that using your muscles will help your mind, because exercising animals regularly increase the number of blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain that is responsible for thought.

Doctors claim exercise spurs development of new nerve cells and increases connections between brain cells (synapses), thus resulting in brains that are more efficient, plastic and adaptive. This translates into better performance in aging animals, along with lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol levels, fighting diabetes and reducing mental stress. All these things have the ability to help your brain and your heart.

Improving your diet with better nutrition should probably be on your bucket list, or there's a fair chance you could kick that bucket before it's necessary. Reducing caloric intake should also lower your risk of mental decline in old age.

You can start eating the right foods by reducing your consumption of saturated fat and cholesterol from animal sources, but getting away from trans-fatty acids in partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils would be a huge improvement.

And then there are those oh-so-important three B vitamins—folic acid, B6, and B12. They have the ability to lower your homocysteine levels, because high levels have been linked to dementia. Begin eating fortified cereals and other grains, along with leafy green vegetables.

If you want to talk about a mid-life crisis, then keep allowing your blood pressure to stay high. You need to modify your lifestyle or you'll almost certainly see a cognitive decline in old age. Try staying lean, exercising regularly, limiting your alcohol intake, reducing stress and eating proper foods.

Improving your blood sugar is extremely important, because diabetes is an important risk factor for dementia. Eating right, exercising regularly and staying lean will help you fight diabetes, but medication may be needed if your blood sugar remains high.

And your doctor will almost certainly discuss improving your cholesterol levels, but you need to know the difference between good and bad cholesterol. High levels of LDL is bad, while low levels are good. Bad means you have a good chance of getting dementia, so pay attention to your diet, exercise and weight control, along with avoiding tobacco products.

You also might want to consider low doses of aspirin, according to observational studies. Long-term studies suggest long-term use of aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) could reduce the risk of dementia by 10 to 50 percent. Although it's just a preliminary study, the information has caused researchers to be hopeful.

Some people say they'd rather be dead than give up certain habits, but you might consider avoiding tobacco in all forms, along with not abusing alcohol. Excessive drinking is a major risk factor for dementia, so limit yourself to two drinks each day if you are a drinker. However, at least five studies have shown connections with low dosages of alcohol and a reduced risk of dementia in older adults, so drinking responsibly could be a good thing. Tobacco has also been shown to impair cognitive processes, especially as we age—though most doctors would argue that quitting smoking is the most reliable way to add years to your life.

And believe it or not, caring for your emotions can go a long way toward improving your mental state. Those who are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived, or exhausted tend to score poorly on cognitive function tests. Low scores don't predict an increased risk of cognitive decline in old age, but you should certainly be aiming for good mental health and restful sleep.

Protecting your head is also extremely important to your long-term health, because moderate to severe head injuries early in life increase the risk of cognitive impairment in old age. Concussions increase your risk by a factor of 10.

Strong social ties have also been associated with lower blood pressure and longer life expectancies. Building your social network as you age is a lot more important than you think. Your memories shape who you are, remembering the stories you tell yourself and the things you've done in your life.

Who are you connected to, and who have you touched during your life, and who has touched you? Your memories are crucial to the essence of who you are as a human being.

Age-related memory loss can represent a loss of self, affecting the practical side of life. If you forget how to get from your house to the grocery store, or how to do everyday tasks, then you've got a real problem. If you can't remember how you're connected to family members, friends and other people, then you could lose your ability to live independently. Now you know why everybody is so scared about declining thinking and memory skills.

Your ability to remember will almost certainly fall off as you age, so you might want to send off for a report compiled by Harvard Health Publications entitled Improving Memory: Understanding age-related memory loss. The 49-page report could help you understand the difference between normal, age-related changes in memory and those caused by dementia.

You'll also learn how to keep your brain healthy and improve your memory if you're living with age-related memory loss. The goal of Harvard's publication is to keep the rest of your body healthy—not just your brain.

Staying physically and mentally active are so important to maintaining a healthy brain and a resilient memory, and keep in mind that your memory can be affected by many medical conditions—from heart disease to depression. You also will learn about different types of dementia and treatments available for them.

The publication was prepared by editors of Harvard Health Publications in consultation with Kirk R. Daffner, M.D., Director, Center for Brain-Mind Medicine and Chief, Division of Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Associate Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.

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An Overmedicated World?; Kelly Leigh Harris; Thursday Review; June 22, 2014