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Our brains sure do have a way of messing with our minds.
One moment, you can be spitting out the names of your entire third-grade class, the batting statistics from the 1974 St. Louis Cardinals, the color dress you wore to the eighth-grade Sadie Hawkins Day dance or the entire script from your favorite Seinfeld episode. The next minute, you space out on the name of your cat. We discussed the basic mechanisms of the brain and memory in the last issue. And as you might remember, you have more control than you may think. We have lots of data from twin studies that say less than 50 percent of memory is inherited, meaning that if you get a head start on the action steps we’re going to cover, you can alter how your genes are expressed. So let’s answer a few questions SUCCESS readers sent in and give you some tips so you’ll remember this article in 20 years.
Q: My mind is always racing in different directions. Is there anything I can do to improve my clarity of thought and concentration?
A: In this day and age, text messages, more frequent commercials and the possibility of at least three phones ringing at once make it seem almost impossible to take a deep breath, let alone focus on a single task. You are in luck, though! We have some simple and fun ways for you to reduce stress and clear your mind.
Tai Chi—This slow-mo form of martial arts is a well-known mind-clearing exercise. Its slow and gentle series of movements can help reduce the excessive ‘noise’ in your brain.
Walking—Thirty minutes of walking (or any type of exercise) a day is a proven emotional easer that also protects you against memory loss. It clears the plaque that gunks up your brain’s power lines.
Naps—Sleep rejuvenates neurons in your brain.
Yoga—This proven stress-reduction technique helps clear your mind and improve your memory and ability to focus.
Q: What foods, vitamins and minerals are essential to brain health?
A: It’d be nice if there were such a thing as mental Viagra—just swallow a pill and get a little lift where you need it. But the verdict’s still out on many foods, pills, supplements and vitamins that purport to make your memory stronger. Here’s our take on the ones that should get attention.
Turmeric and curcumin—These spices common in Indian curries (and also most yellow mustards) fight memory loss, increase memory-boosting neurotrophins and decrease levels of APO E4 (a risk factor for Alzheimer’s).
B vitamins (B12, B6 and folic acid)—These vitamins help your neurotransmitters (chemicals that ferry messages around your brain) run efficiently. Getting 40 mg of B6, 800 mcg of B12 and 400 mcg of folic acid daily, including what’s in your multivitamin, should do the trick.
E Vitamins—Foods like spinach, sunflower seeds, mangos and blueberries are great sources of different types of vitamin E and drop your risk of dementia by 25 percent. However, E is not that easy to get from food, so we still recommend taking a 100 IU supplement of E (alpha-tocopherol) daily.
Selenium—This mineral keeps your memory razor-sharp. Getting at least 55 mcg of selenium a day can help you score as well on cognitive tests as people 10 years younger than you. Eggs, turkey breast and tuna are good sources.
DHA—About 60 percent of our brains are fat, and 50 percent of that is DHA, the primo form of omega-3 fatty acids. DHA keeps brain cells young and does repair work. After age 18, get 900 mg of algae-based DHA a day.
Eat the rainbow—Fresh fruits and veggies are brain foods. They’re packed with fl avonoids, which power up your body’s own antioxidant protection system, protect against cognitive decline and reduce your risk of dementia by up to 76 percent. The flavonoids in celery, spinach, kale and collard greens are especially good at slowing mental decline.
Go Mediterranean—Eating Mediterranean style (whole grains, fresh produce, olive oil, lots of fish, some nuts) cuts the risk for early thinking problems by 28 percent in one five-year study, and those who already had signs of dementia reduced their risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 48 percent when they ate this way.
Q: How can we make our brains work better—longer?
A: Prevention is where to start. Pamper your blood vessels and brain, first by rereading the above, and then by adding these steps.
Check your vices at the door. Smoking increases your threat of dementia by as much as 80 percent and doubles your odds for Alzheimer’s disease, thanks to tobacco’s toxic effects on your blood vessels. Don’t let excess alcohol fog your brain either. Yes, one drink a day for women and up to two for men help guard your little gray cells, but the balance tips fast: Up to 25 percent of all dementia may be due to heavy drinking.
Steady your blood pressure and your blood sugar. High blood pressure can make the delicate blood vessels in your brain leak or even rupture. No wonder experts say blood pressure problems increase dementia risk by 50 percent. Keep your BP low (aim for 115/75). Keep an eye on your blood sugar, too. Diabetes, or even hints of it (prediabetes), eggs on dementia, possibly by making tiny arteries narrower and leakier.
Find something you love to do and do it. Stress kills hippocampal connections, which are keys to memory. You can use guided imagery, a stress-reduction Internet program or a Jon Stewart DVD and laugh your stress away. But the best way is to find a purpose in life and love going for it.
Take this over-the-counter memory saver.
Aspirin (162 mg daily) slows arterial aging, the major cause of memory loss, by 40 percent. It also may help prevent gunk from building up on your mental wiring. Men over 35 and women over 40 should take it, if your doc agrees. Take 162 mg (two baby aspirin or half a regular aspirin). Wash down with half a glass of warm water to lower the risk of stomach irritation.
Q: How can I help my aging parents as they struggle with memory loss?
A: First and foremost, take care of yourself. Caregiver stress is a serious issue, especially when taking care of relatives with neurodegenerative and cognitive issues. Next, do all the things that you can to improve your memory along with that of your aging parents. For example, you can take a walk around the block together or try a yoga class. Make healthy meals and snacks like a frittata packed with veggies and a dash of turmeric or low-fat yogurt with some blueberries mixed in and a cup of coffee, then enjoy them together. Bottom line: Being supportive and making sure that you are taking care of yourself as well as your parents is extremely helpful.