All your brain wants is attention. Feed it, challenge it, care for it. One of the key things to do? Constantly stretch your mind with crosswords, chess, Scrabble or learning to speak Chinese. Here are our favorite ways to keep your brain operating at maximum power.
Teach a Lesson
Teaching can save your brain. You’re far more likely to retain info if you have to explain it to someone else. The degree to which you can effectively explain info indicates how well you’ve learned it. The lesson: Take advantage of mentoring opportunities. This can be instructing your favorite hobby at the local college, or inviting neighborhood teens over to teach them to make a soufflé or change a tire. By teaching the next generation, you’ll power up your own generator.
Be a Lifelong Learner
In a study of nuns and Alzeheimer’s disease, the nuns who fared best were better educated. Those nuns who developed Alzeheimer’s were less physically and mentally active outside their jobs in their youth. Although the neurological tangles may be genetic, your ability to resist the effects is not.
When you increase learning, you decrease the risk of developing memory-related problems. You have to push yourself to learn tasks that may not come naturally, through a new hobby, game or vocation. Performing tough tasks reinforces the neural connections that are important to preserve memory. Your mind has a way of rising to the occasion. Challenge it, and it will reward you.
Stop and Think About Thinking
Like breathing, thinking is designed to be an automatic process. Thinking is an involuntary reflex. While you can often control what you think about, thinking is as natural as an ocean—stuff just floats and goes where it wants.
Try this when you’re doing a simple activity like waking up: Instead of rolling out of bed, splashing water on your face and dreading your morning meeting, think of your surroundings. Listen for birds, notice the drips of water streaming down your leg as you shower, savor the sips of OJ, think of every tooth you’re brushing. It doesn’t take more time; it just helps train your brain. Thinking about the thought process is really about awareness and is one of the tools you can use to strengthen your neural connections.
See If Your Genes Fit
If you have a family history of memory-related problems, and are comfortable with genetic testing, you can have your Apo E4 protein level checked. That’ll help you determine whether you’re more or less predisposed to clearing that gunky beta-amyloid from your neural wiring. No matter what your result, alcohol intake and obesity can increase expression of the gene, while exercise decreases the amount of Apo E4 in the blood.
Live in the Moment
We know what life’s like when the dog’s barking, the baby’s crying, Nickelodeon’s on full volume, your spouse is talking to you and the phone’s ringing. When it comes to your brain, stress is a massive amount of noise in your system. It comes in the form of job dissatisfaction, nagging tasks, bills and fights about where you’re spending the holidays. Oy.
One of the keys to a healthy mind is to live as much as you can in the moment. Think about what you’re doing now, not worrying about the mistakes you made yesterday, and the headaches you may have tomorrow. This actually helps reduce noise in the system.
Evolutionarily, you see how it works. When you’re aroused by stress (saber-tooth coming for you), you have a really narrow cognitive ability: run or fight. Good for survival, but this acute function shortens the telomeres on your chromosomes and contributes to memory problems. In the modern age, more stress means the inability to concentrate. That’s been correlated with a shrinking prefrontal cortex.
Living in the moment is a behavior you can learn with practice. Example: When you’re playing with your kids, force yourself to focus on Candyland, making it an experience for your kids, rather than a distant one for you (thinking about tomorrow’s workday). It takes some effort and time. In the end, living in the moment rewards you and the people around you.
Feed on Brain Food
A certain amount of food travels up your brain, via arteries, after it’s been through the digestive process. Among the best nutrients to keep your cerebral power lines strong: omega-3 fatty acids. This is the kind of fat in fish like mahi-mahi and salmon. These fats have been shown to slow cognitive decline in people who are at risk. They also help keep your arteries clear and improve the function of your message-sending neurotransmitters. Try 13 ounces of fish per week. If you prefer supplements, take two grams of fish oil a day (metabolically distilled). You can also use DHA from algae (where fish get their omega-3s). Or simply, an ounce of walnuts a day. DHA is the omega-3 that seems best for the brain.
Chi-gong is an activity that looks like slo-mo martial arts. It not only improves your physical wellbeing, but can serve as a mind-clearing exercise. This gentle, slow series of movements can reduce the noise and is great if you have pains and aches that hold you back from your routine.
Load Up on Salad
The veggies—not the fat-laden dressing. Any kind of vegetables can slow cognitive decline, even more than fruits. Eating two plus servings a day (yes, just two!) decreases the decline in thinking by 35 percent over six years. Pass the sprouts, please.
Add a Dash of This and That
Several substances have been shown to help cognitive functioning. These are the ones we recommend:
Go With the Flow
Your blood feeds your brain nutrients. One of you goals should be keeping your arteries clear and flowing. Reducing high blood pressure can improve cognitive function and substantially slow Alzheimer’s progression.
If you have a diastolic blood pressure over 90 (the bottom number), then you have a five times greater dementia risk two decades down the line (than if it’s below 90). If you have elevated blood pressure, it could be because your arteries are constricted from cholesterol plaques, limiting the amount of nutrients to reach a particular area. Not having sufficient blood supplied to that area between the two main arteries is what elevates stroke risk.
Consider Your Hormonal Options
Early menopause research showed that boosting estrogen delays Alzheimer’s. New research is less clear, so we don’t believe that’s reason enough to start taking estrogen. If you’re considering taking it for other reasons, this could be an additional positive factor.
Get into the Game
It’s no surprise that exercise is good for your heart (and modeling career), but it’s also an elixir for your mind. It seems that more intense exercise preserves neurocognitive function by decreasing the Apo-E4 gene expression, to help clear the beta-amyloid plaque that gunks your power lines. Exercise has been correlated with increased telomere length.
Here’s a brain-boosting workout: Once or twice weekly, choose an exercise that requires your mind and body to work, like a tennis game or Bikram yoga. The sports or exercises that engage you in the moment can help clear your mind at the same time. No need to overdo it. Just thirty minutes of walking per day plus your workout can help you burn 2,000 to 3,5000 calories per week—the amount shown to increase telomere length.
Detox Your Life
Our environment can have a profound impact on our memory. If you’re experiencing memory problems, eliminate some key chemicals from your lifestyle before adding anything new. This includes MSG, artificial foods (sweeteners) and even shampoo (better to make sure the inside of your head’s clean, isn’t it?).
Finally, statin drugs can uncommonly cause reversible memory loss, a discussion to have with your doc if you’re more concerned with your memory than your heart. Even over-the-counter cold and allergy meds can contribute to memory problems. Injecting lab animals with the active ingredient in Benadryl (diphenhydramine) is a research model for memory loss that immediately stimulates Alzheimer’s.
Learn to Tell a Joke
A good laugh could help improve your immune system, and have a valuable effect on your memory. Humor requires what the laugh docs call conceptual blending—that is, the ability to relate the expected to the unexpected. We laugh when surprising happens. Having a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence. Telling a joke challenges your brain. You have to be able to play mental hopscotch from one word to another to make sure the story or riddle combines a set of expected circumstances and unexpected ones. If you tell it right, you have to have a fair amount of social intelligence as well—the ability to maximize the tension and mystery of the joke ‘til the last second.
Map Your Mind
One way to strengthen your mind? Flex parts you don’t use often, perhaps those associated with imagination. Try this trick from psychologist Tony Buzan when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Map out your to-do list rather than listing it. Draw a pic of your issue in the middle of the paper, then branch out from the centerpiece with smaller subsections and keywords related to the issue.
For example, if you want to lose 20 pounds, draw a pic of yourself on a scale in the middle. Instead of listing the ways to do it, draw lines from the center to things like food, pitfalls, exercise, supports and other broad categories that’ll help you. Then branch out from there with subcategories (food may have branches like: “Eat breakfast,” “Eat five small meals a day”).
Why is this helpful? For one, starting in the center gives your brain freedom to spread out in different directions. For another, a pic flexes your imagination muscles and keeps you focused and able to concentrate better. The branches work because your brain works by association. Connect the branches and you’ll understand, remember and act on the problem more easily.
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