How to Keep Your Brain in Tip-Top ShapeLifestyle habits can have a significant influence upon brain functions such as memory, learning, judgment, and mental acuity. Firstly, it is important to manage stress since chronic stress can negatively affect memory. Under stress it is harder to remember things and to create memory files for new information.
Getting sufficient sleep is important to maintain cognitive function. A regular loss of 1-2 hours of sleep a night can impair brain function. Other factors which can cause memory problems are depression, use of certain prescription drugs, and dealing with chronic pain. Elevated blood pressure during mid-life can result in a loss of cognitive function in later life.
Regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, is a sure way to improve blood flow to the brain and enhance memory. Men over age 70 who remained as active as they had been earlier in life were shown to stay more mentally alert. People who exercise daily are also better able to multi-task. In a two-year study, beagles (aged 7 to 11 years) performed better on cognitive tests and were more likely to learn new tasks when they had regular exercise and play periods with other dogs, along with being fed an antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetable diet. The combined treatments were more effective than either treatment alone in delaying any age-dependent cognitive decline.
Aging is often associated with impaired blood glucose metabolism, and this can have an impact on the brain causing memory deficits. Dr Convit at New York University found that persons with higher than normal blood sugar levels performed poorer on tests of short term memory than people with normal blood glucose levels. In addition, people with elevated blood sugar were found to have a smaller hippocampus, that part of the brain that deals with learning and memory.
Having meaningful relationships with others, sharing ideas and plans with dear friends, keeps the mind occupied in a meaningful way. Being socially engaged also provides mental stimulation. Those who keep mentally active throughout life, reading good books, keeping abreast of current events, and being engaged in hobbies are 4 times less likely to end up with Alzheimer's disease.
Lifestyle can also influence risk of Alzheimer's disease. A Swedish study found that persons who were obese in their 50's, and who had high blood cholesterol and high blood pressure were up to six-fold more likely to develop Alzheimer's. On the other hand, consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like walnuts and flaxseed) appears to reduce the risk of developing brain lesions similar to those seen in Alzheimer's.
Good food choices (such as eating fruit, vegetables and seeds) definitely influence brain function and cognition. Scientists at Cornell University recently found that the flavonoid quercetin can protect against brain-cell damage. Antioxidants like quercetin counter the damaging effect of free radicals on brain function. Apples (especially the skins) contain some of the highest levels of quercetin. Red apples typically have higher levels of antioxidant flavonoids than green or yellow apples. Other foods rich in quercetin include onions, blueberries, and cranberries.
People who consume a diet high in soy products also enjoy a better recognition and recall ability in memory testing compared to those on a low-soy diet. In rat studies at Tufts University, adding blueberries or purple grape juice to the diet consumed by the rats, improved short-term memory in aging neurons.
Aging women experienced less cognitive decline when they consumed higher amounts of green, leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli. An increased intake of foods rich in lignans (sesame, flax, broccoli, and berries) was also reported to be associated with better cognitive performance in postmenopausal women. Curcumin, a compound found in the orange-colored spice turmeric, has further shown promise in reducing plague levels and dementia in aging brains.
A deficiency of certain nutrients can play a detrimental role in brain function. Irritability, depression, and confusion can result when diets are consumed over a time period, which are substantially deficient in B vitamins such as thiamin, niacin, and pyridoxine. Vitamin B12 deficiency in the elderly can also slowly lead to various levels of dementia. Furthermore, a sufficient intake of folic acid is necessary for an appropriate number of neurons to form in the hippocampus section of the brain. Good sources of folic acid include bread, citrus fruits, and green, leafy vegetables.
Iron deficiency in children has been found to be associated with poor attention, altered learning and memory, and behavioral disturbances. Some studies suggest that depression and altered cognitive functioning are associated with iron deficiency in otherwise healthy adolescents and adults.
Mental acuity can be impaired by a chronic headache or migraine. Feverfew is a herb that is valued for its ability to reduce the frequency and severity of migraines. In addition, peppermint oil that is rubbed on the forehead or temple area of subjects can be effective in relieving headache pain. Lavender oil can release a vapor which helps relieve tension headaches and promotes calm and restful sleep.
Author: Winston Craig, MPH, PhD, RD.
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