10 magic brain tricks
Alzheimer's just plain terrifies us. But brave new research is revealing ways we can literally grow our brain cells and keep this dreaded disease at bay.
For many people, gradually but ineluctably losing your mind is the worst fate imaginable – more fearful than cancer or heart attack; more fearful, even, than death itself. 100 simple things you can do to prevent Alzheimer's and age-related memory-loss by Jean Carper, a health journalist who discovered that she is genetically at high risk of developing the disease, offers something of an antidote to that fear.
There is no cure and no definitive prevention (more correctly the book's title should be 100 simple things you can do to help prevent Alzheimer's), but the flurry of research into the disease in recent decades has given us what Carper calls a “grab bag” of tips to stave it off as long as possible. Here's a sample:
1. Do something new
A new thought or experience stimulates nerve cell growth and literally “grows your brain”, shoring it up against the potential onslaught of Alzheimer’s. So not only should we keep ourselves active mentally and physically, we should try new thoughts and activities – especially those that challenge us. Learn a new word, or a whole new language. If you’ve always been useless at reading a map or doing long division, give it a go. Travel to new places, meet new people, do things differently. Embrace novelty in all its forms. Stretch yourself.
2. Check your thyroid
Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism have been linked to increased risk for Alzheimer’s. Low thyroid is particularly common in middle-aged women, so have your thyroid checked at 40. Both men and women of any age should be tested if they experience symptoms of abnormal thyroid.
3. Get a higher education
The more years of formal education people have, the better their brains seem to withstand Alzheimer’s. Didn’t have the opportunity to go to university? – no matter. Sign up for an adult education class now, and jump at every opportunity to get on-the-job training. London taxi-drivers, most of whom don’t have higher degrees, have healthy neuron growth - likely because they have to memorise, recall and negotiate the vast complex of their city’s streets. They also chat to a lot of new people.
4. Learn this word: homocysteine
It's an amino acid often found in high levels in people with heart disease, and has also been linked to a raised risk for cognitive impairment. Scientists think homocysteine may promote the buildup of toxic deposits found in the brain cells of Alzheimer's patients. Luckily, B-vitamins blast homocysteine, so boost your dietary intake of B12, B9 (folic acid) , and B6, and consider taking a vitamin B-complex supplement. This is especially important for vegans and vegetarians, as plant foods contain no B12, and generally lower levels of other B-vitamins. You can also ask your doctor to test your homocysteine levels with an inexpensive blood test. Vitamin B3 (niacin) also helps fight Alzheimer's.
5. Keep your balance
Impaired balance, even more than memory loss, is one of the first and most telling signs of encroaching dementia. People aged 30 to 70 should be able to stand on one leg, arms crossed on the chest for 30 seconds; 28 seconds if you’re over 70; 21 seconds for over-80s. You can improve your balance by practising one-leg standing, and doing exercises like yoga and tai chi. Maintaining good balance as we age also lowers the risk of falls and head injury, which in itself may contribute to Alzheimer’s.
6. Mega amounts of omega-3
Omega-3 fatty acids are critical for healthy brain function. In fact, they are critical for many areas of health that need support as you age, such as heart health, cardiovascular health, nervous system support and eye health. But the National Institute of Health in the U.S says that ensuring you have adequate intake of omega-3s does appear to be an effective way to prevent dementia.
7. Fight depression
Major depression is a devastating disease in itself, but it may literally cause a form of brain damage and make you more prone to develop Alzheimer’s. The good news is that depression is highly treatable (and often reversible) with medication, psychotherapy and a regular exercise regime. So don’t put off getting help for a persistent low mood – even mild depression can be debilitating, and can trigger more severe forms.
8. Google something
Brain scans of middle-aged and older people show increased intensity of activity when they’re doing an internet search – and the intensity is greater the more experienced you get at this. Web surfing may stimulate the brain because it involves making multiple decisions as you click to find the info you seek. The internet also offers ways to make and strengthen social contacts. If you’re reading this article you’re likely already web-savvy, so you may want to amp it up by trying some brain-teaser sites like Braingle.
9. Spare those mammals
A diet heavy in red meat (i.e. from mammals – beef, pork, lamb), especially if it’s processed or cured (like ham, luncheon meats, bacon, hot dogs) speeds up the progression of brain damage that can lead to dementia. Cut it out, or replace with chicken and fish – poultry may help deter Alzheimer’s, and fish is even better.
10. Look after your gums
There are worse things than losing your teeth to gum disease – losing your mind, for instance. People with gingivitis (the precursor to periodontal disease) score worse on cognition and memory tests, possibly because chronic gum infection releases toxic by-products that travel to the brain. So floss, brush and visit your dentist religiously.
Much of the advice on strengthening the mind's defences against isn't new, however. The latest research is simply finding more and more compelling evidence to heed those well-worn medical injunctions that will also lower your risk for arteriosclerosis, type 2 diabetes and many cancers:
Don't smoke (smoking nearly doubles risk of developing Alzheimers); stay active and exercise regularly (inactive people have less blood flow to the brain and it shrinks faster as they age); eat a large variety of fruit and veg; don't binge-drink; manage stress levels and above all, keep thinking.
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