Feature Articles: Health
Ways to boost your brain power and prevent dementia
Every seven seconds someone in the U.S. is diagnosed with dementia, a statistic that strikes fear in all of us as we age. No one wants to lose their ability to reason, think and remember people and places. If the trend continues, experts are estimating that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, will quadruple by 2050.
Although genes seem to influence risk for Alzheimer’s disease, there appears to be relatively few cases linking heredity with dementia. In addition, the latest research indicates senility is not an inevitable part of aging. There is a lot you can do to protect your brain, says Lynda Johnson, nutrition & health education specialist with University of Missouri Extension.
According to Johnson, mounting evidence suggests you maintain your brain in many of the same ways you protect your heart. For example, diets high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains are heart healthy, and also contain essential nutrients and antioxidants to prevent brain cell damage. Johnson recommends at least three servings of whole grains each day plus five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables. A new study in France linked diets rich in flavonoids with enhanced performance on cognitive tests. Flavonoids are found in some fruits and vegetables as well as in chocolate, tea and coffee.
In order to protect your head and heart, you also want to include lean meats, omega 3-rich fish, nuts and seeds, and low-fat dairy in your diet. The Chicago Health and Aging Project followed 800 adults over four years and found that one fish meal a week reduced the risk for Alzheimer's. Eating more omega 3-rich foods, such as incorporating more walnuts, soy and flaxseed in your regular diet, further reduces the risk.
People often associate the expression “move it or lose it” with stronger muscles, however, this concept applies to your brain as well. Recent research at the Columbia University Medical Center demonstrated that exercise can trigger brain cell growth in areas of the brain that are key to memory and learning. Another study, reported in the Environmental Nutrition newsletter, followed over 1,700 healthy people 65 and older for six years. The study found a 32 percent lower risk of dementia in those who exercised at least 15 minutes three times per week.
According to Lisa D. Ravdin, Director of the Cornell Neuropsychology Service at Weill Cornell Medical College, the typical risk factors for heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol and high blood pressure are the same risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, the research seems to be converging, and studies demonstrating that regular exercise benefits heart health also indicate that exercise lowers risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Experts agree that it is never too late nor too early to start exercising for the benefit of your heart and brain. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden followed a group of 1,500 people for approximately 21 years and found that those who exercised at least twice a week in middle age were 60 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's when they got older.
An added benefit of physical activity is stress reduction and improved mood. Exercise has been shown to be as effective as anti-depressants in treating mild depression. As you exercise, your brain releases the “feel good” neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Both of these endorphins impact mood regulation and your ability to think more clearly. Exercise also breaks down the chemicals and hormones that build up during times of stress. After exercising, levels of anxiety and stress are greatly decreased so you may sleep better as well, which is also beneficial for overall health.
Other ways to stimulate brain function are to participate in social activities with family and friends, and volunteer in the community. Continue exercising your brain through reading, playing challenging card games, dancing or learning something new. To really boost brain power, start moving and keep moving. Take time every day to keep your mind and body fit with brisk walks and stretching.
Environmental Nutrition, Special Edition, Spring 2007.
Weill Cornell Medical College Food & Fitness Advisor, August 2007.
Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, September 2007.
Last update: Tuesday, March 15, 2011