Our basic premise is: Your body is amazing. You get a do-over; it doesn’t take that long, and isn’t that hard if you know what to do. In these columns, we give you a short course in what to do. We want you to know how much control you have over your quality and length of life.
This month, we interrupt talking about making you younger all over to concentrate on your brain. There are seven things that can help you reinvent your brain.
A new government report says there’s little evidence that you can prevent Alzheimer’s disease. But grab those reading glasses and squint at the fine print. There’s plenty you can do to keep your little gray cells sharp. There’s real evidence, as this report notes, that being physically active, eating healthy fats and keeping your blood pressure low deliver a lot of brain-saving bang for your buck.
The report didn’t really explain why, but we will: Not all dementia is Alzheimer’s. The major cause of brain dysfunction as you age—dementia—gets less press but it’s much more fixable and more common. Called vascular dementia, it happens when the fragile blood vessels in your brain either get clogged or grow leaky.
Either way, fuzzy thinking and memory lapses result because your brain cells can’t get enough oxygen and blood sugar (their favorite food). While many people with Alzheimer’s also have some vascular dementia, the thinking problems in others are 100 percent due to blood vessel trouble. That’s right, most memory loss and fuzzy thinking as we age is due to a combo of things, with the leading cause being one you can prevent or even reverse to a great degree—keeping your arterial roadways clear.
Prevention is where to start, of course (duh). That means pampering your blood vessels with these seven steps, which are good for your brain.
1. Do 10,000 steps a day and work your muscles with intervals, too.
Physical activity zooms blood flow to your brain and unleashes brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a natural brain fertilizer that makes cells multiply and connect. Walk 10,000 steps a day, and do some cardio, too. In one six-year study of 1,700 people age 65 and older, working out three times a week reduced the Alzheimer’s risk by a third.
Walk, weed, ride a bike, learn to tango—anything you do counts. But the biggest gains came to those who stressed their hearts to the max for two to four minutes, three times a week. That means doing cardio, and if your doc says OK, going all out for two minutes in the middle and two minutes at the end of that workout.
2. Eat like a Greek—no, not with deficit spending, but with the food they choose.
Fresh veggies and fruit are brain foods. They’re packed with flavonoids, which power up your body’s own antioxidant protection system. In a study of 1,640 elderly women and men, those who ate the most produce (and enjoyed flavonoid-rich coffee, tea, wine and chocolate, too) had the least decline in brain functioning after 10 years. Another study found that a glass of vegetable juice a few times per week cut Alzheimer’s risk by a huge 76 percent.
And in a recent study, gobbling 900 milligrams of vegetarian DHA a day in pill form (from algae with no risk of mercury or fish taste) reduced cognitive errors as if you were 3.5 years younger.
Or eat as if you’re 3. on a Mediterranean island—yes Greek or Italian.
The classic Mediterranean diet—whole grains, fresh produce, olive oil, lots of fish, some nuts—is also rich in flavonoids. Plus, healthy fats help control blood pressure.
It’s a winning eating plan for your brain; eating Mediterranean style cut 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.
4. Check your vices at the door.
Smoking increases your threat of dementia by up to 80 percent and doubles your odds for Alzheimer’s disease, thanks to tobacco’s toxic effects on your blood vessels. It isn’t a random event; tobacco causes inflammation in blood vessels; that’s why it is associated with wrinkles and impotence—both signs of blood vessel aging. And don’t let excess alcohol fog your brain either. Yes, one drink a day for women and up to two for men helps guard your little gray cells, but the balance tips fast: Up to 25 percent of all dementia may be due to heavy drinking.
5. 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) by keeping your diet healthy, your body active and your weight down. 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.
6. Tone your torso.
A big waistline in midlife boosts your chance of dementia years later, according to a study of 6,000 women and men. A paunch also hurts your heart, and the reasons for both are the same: Belly fat fuels inflammation and plaque buildup in your arteries, restricting blood flow to your heart and brain. And we know how much your body likes that. So aim for a waist below 35 inches for women, 40 for men. The only thing you want to keep big is your brain.
7. Find something you love to do and do it.
Stress kills hippocampal connections, and hippocampal connections are keys to memory. So use guided imagery, a stress-free Internet program, or record Jon Stewart and laugh your stress away.
But the best way is to find a purpose in life and love going for it—and that’s what SUCCESS magazine is all about. Reinventing yourself with purpose is the key to success, happiness and a reinvigorated brain.