It happens to most of us: those times when you can’t remember where you put your car keys. That panicky feeling when you’re introducing your client to a coworker and can’t remember her name. The feeling of frustration when you head into the kitchen and draw a blank on what you needed.
In moments like these, do you silently ask yourself: Am I losing it?
For years, the conventional wisdom has been that becoming forgetful or even a little “spacey” as we age is inevitable. Not so. Researchers at the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which tracked 239 participants for up to 17 years, found that people with higher cognitive reserve—that is, more education, literacy and involvement in mentally stimulating activities—had a lower risk of Alzheimer’s symptoms, even though most of the study participants had a close relative with the disease.
The notion that you can keep your brain functioning at its highest level and prevent or delay dementia symptoms is encouraging news for aging Americans, especially as a cure for Alzheimer’s continues to elude researchers. In fact, Daniel Amen, MD, a neuroscientist and author of the bookMaking a Good Brain Great, contends that the brain is like any other muscle: “The more you use it, the more you can use it.”
To boost your brain health, consider the following seven steps.
Step 1: Work up a sweat. It turns out that exercise isn’t just good for your body; it’s also essential for brain health. Try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week to keep your brain sharp. The basis for this recommendation is a University of Lisbon study, which found that regular exercise reduced the risk of vascular-related dementia by 40 percent and cognitive impairment from any cause by 60 percent.
Step 2: Learn something new. Read, do puzzles, teach yourself how to play a musical instrument, round up some friends and play a game, or learn a new language. The New England Journal of Medicine found that seniors who participated in mentally challenging activities once a week for a 20-year period reduced the risk of dementia by 7 percent. Those who engaged in these activities more often reduced their risk by a whopping 63 percent. The reason? When you challenge the brain, you increase the number of brain cells and the number of connections between those cells.
Step 3: Eat well. If you’ve ever experienced the “mental fog” that comes when you overindulge in junk food, you’ll understand that what you eat has a direct impact on your brain function. Researchers atColumbia University found that a heart-friendly Mediterranean diet—one that focuses on fish, vegetables, fruit, nuts and beans—gives a more reliable flow of energy to the brain, optimizing its long-term health and helping to reduce Alzheimer’s risk by 34 to 48 percent.
Step 4: Find your purpose. People who have a sense of purpose in life are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or even mild cognitive impairment. A recent study from the Rush University Medical Center found that setting goals and following through on them can protect your brain against the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Step 5: Get your sleep. Getting sufficient shut-eye is crucial for restoring your mental energy. Short-change yourself on sleep, and important skills like planning, problem solving, learning, concentration and memory may all be compromised. And the less sleep you get, the more profound the deficit will be.
Step 6: Sit and meditate. Neuroscientists have long contended that meditation strengthens the connections between brain cells, producing both beneficial short-term and permanent changes in the thickness of the brain. Now, a further report by UCLA researchers suggests another benefit. Long-term meditators have larger amounts of folding in their brains. This enables the brain to process information faster than people who do not meditate. In short, meditation can increase brain size and help slow some aspects of cognitive aging.
Step 7: Reduce your risks. Protecting your brain from Alzheimer’s disease may not be as difficult as you think. Researchers from the University of California suggest that simple lifestyle changes can profoundly reduce the risk of getting Alzheimer’s or, in the case of those in the early stages of the disease, slow its tide. These include reducing major risk factors such as smoking, low education and lack of exercise, and treating and preventing chronic conditions like depression and mid-life diabetes, obesity and hypertension.
Bottom line: The brain is malleable and able to change. With a little bit of regular attention as you age, you can keep your brain sharp.
The Northwestern MutualVoice Team is a group of professionals who share insights and opinions from experts and industry leaders across the enterprise. Our vision is to inspire others to take action and plan for their financial future through topics ranging from financial planning, retirement planning and distribution strategies, wealth accumulation and preservation, to leadership, philanthropy and innovation.