Crossword head

My great-aunt Marlene lived to see 96, but she wasn’t really present for the final five years. She didn’t remember my sister, my father or me when we went to visit her at her nursing home in the Bronx — although she was always thrilled to see us, she would take several guesses at our names before we finally revealed our true identities, and meaningful conversation was nearly impossible. It must have been difficult for Marlene to live in such a cloudy world, and I hope not to suffer the same fate. Some cognitive decline may be inevitable in old age, but there are also numerous tactics to keep your mind sharp and have a healthy brain for life — and you bet I’m using them.

Exercising your body may be one of the best ways to preserve your brain. In a study of 70-to-80-year old women with mild cognitive impairment, researchers assigned participants to one of two exercise routines: weightlifting or brisk walking. A third group was assigned a stretching routine, but no endurance or strength training. After six months, the women who walked or lifted weights both performed better on multiple cognitive tests. Women who just stretched, however, performed worse on these tests than they had at the start of the study. 

According to MayoClinic.com, exercise helps cognitive function by boosting blood flow to the brain, and also by increasing certain chemicals that offer natural protection against aging. Thirty to sixty minutes of exercise at least three days per week should do the trick.

What you eat can affect your brain health, too. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, diets rich in saturated fats and cholesterol, both of which come from animal products like red meat and butter, make you more prone to Alzheimer’s disease. In contrast, certain foods may actually work to protect your grey matter. Dark-skinned fruits and veggies like kale, purple grapes, blueberries, beets and broccoli are brain-friendly, as are cold-water fish like salmon and halibut. Nuts including almonds and pecans contain plenty of vitamin E, which also may help preserve your noodle. The association also notes that vitamin B and folate may have therapeutic effects, as does taking vitamin C and E together. 

You can have fun and boost brain power at the same time with my personal favorite: puzzles. I knew that stack of crossword books by my bed was good for more than just wasting hours of my life! In a recent study, researchers compared brain scans of older adults (the average age was 76) with scans from a group of young people around 25 years old. It turned out that older folks who did the most puzzles had brains that looked more like the twenty-somethings’. In general, those who performed more mentally-stimulating activities showed less protein Beta-amyloid protein uptake, which is a marker of Alzheimer’s. 

Interestingly, the battle against Alzheimer’s seems to begin in the early and middle years of life. The greatest benefits in the study were seen among those who challenged their brains in younger years. This means that it’s never too soon to start protecting your brain — so get solving!

image: Jeremy Brooks