How to sharpen your mind, strengthen your brain, and keep your thoughts in order. Teach a Lesson
In life, we have all kinds of teachers: first-grade teachers, biology teachers, ballet teachers. While they may have been responsible for teaching us how to read, how to dissect a frog or how to do the perfect plié, they also taught us perhaps one of the most important lessons about aging: Teaching can save your brain. You're far more likely to retain information if you have to explain it to somebody else. The degree to which you can effectively explain information indicates how well you've actually learned it.
The lesson: Take advantage of mentoring opportunities—whether it's instructing a class in your favorite hobby at a community college, or inviting the neighborhood teens over to teach them how to change a tire or make a soufflé. Teach the next generation, and you'll power up your own generator.
Be a Lifelong Learner
Yeah, sure, we know what your ideal picture of retirement looks like: One hammock, one baby blue ocean, four naps a day. That's great and all, but one of the best ways to ensure that your mind doesn't liquidate into the consistency of a piña colada is to continue to give it a reason to function. Work it. Challenge it. Teach it new things.
When you increase your learning during life, you decrease the risk of developing memory-related problems. That means your brain has a fighting chance—if you keep it active and engaged, if you keep challenging it with new lessons, if you learn a new game or new hobby or new vocation. You have to challenge your mind—even making it a little uncomfortable by pushing yourself to learn tasks that may not come naturally. Doing tough tasks reinforces the neural connections that are important to preserving memory. Like a clutch athlete, your mind has a way of rising to the occasion. Challenge it, and it will reward you.
Stop and Think About Thinking
Like breathing, thinking is designed to be an automatic process. Don't believe us? Then do this. Don't think of a bruised banana. Don't picture it. Don't let the image cross your mind. Ha! The only thing you can think of right now is that darn banana. The point here is that you can't do anything but think when you're thinking. Thinking is an involuntary reflex; while you can often control what you think about, thinking is as natural as an ocean's ecosystem—stuff kind of floats around and goes where it wants to go.
Now, try this when you're doing a simple activity, like waking up. Instead of just rolling out of bed, splashing water on your face, and dreading your 8 a.m. meeting, think about your surroundings: Listen for birds, notice the drips of water beading down your leg in the shower, savor the sips from your orange juice, think about every tooth you're brushing. It doesn't take any more time; it just helps train your brain. We're not trying to go all philosophic on you; thinking about the thought process is really about awareness and is one of the tools you can use to strengthen your neural connections.
See If Your Genes Fit
If you have a family history of memory-related problems and are comfortable with genetic testing, you can have your level of Apo E4 protein checked. That will help you determine whether you're more or less predisposed to clearing that gunky beta-amyloid from your neural wiring. You can find out more about the test on ARUPLab.com, AthenaDiagnostics.com or RealAge.com. No matter what your result, know that obesity and alcohol increase expression of the gene, while exercise decreases the amount of Apo E4 in the blood. Live in the Moment
When it comes to your brain, stress acts as noise in your system—only it comes in the form of nagging tasks, job dissatisfaction, bills and fights about who's going to which family's house for the holidays. One of the keys to having a healthy mind is to live as much as you can in the moment—that is, thinking about what you're doing right now, not worrying about the mistakes you made yesterday or the headaches that await you tomorrow.
More stress means the inability to concentrate, and that's been shown to contribute to a shrinking of the prefrontal cortex. Is living in the moment hard to do? Of course it can be, but it's a behavior you can learn with practice, similar to our previous strategy of thinking about thinking. Example: When you're playing with your kids and letting tomorrow's work day weigh on you, force yourself to concentrate on Candy Land—making it a great experience for your kids rather than a distant one for you. It takes some time and effort, but in the end, the act of living in the moment rewards not only you, but also the people around you.
Feed on Brain Food
While physics would dictate that your food would travel down after you eat it, a certain amount travels up to your brain (via arteries after it's been through the digestive process, of course). One of the best nutrients to help keep your cerebral power lines strong are omega-3 fatty acids, the kinds of fat found in fish like salmon and mahimahi. These healthy fats, which have been shown to slow cognitive decline in people who are at risk, not only help keep your arteries clear, but also improve the function of your message-sending neurotransmitters. Aim for 13 ounces of fish a week, or if you prefer supplements, take 2 grams of fish oil a day.
Chi-Gong, an activity that looks like slow-mo martial arts, can not only help improve your physical well-being, but it can also serve as a mind-clearing exercise. This slow, gentle series of movements can help reduce the noise (and is especially great if you have aches and pains that hold you back from your normal routine).
Load Up on Salad
With the veggies, not the fat-laden dressing. It's been shown that vegetables—any kind, any place—slow cognitive decline even more than fruits. Eating two or more servings a day (just two!) decreases the decline in thinking by 35 percent over six years. Pass the sprouts, please.
Resveratrol, found in red wine, although the high doses that have been researched might require too much alcohol, so also consider a high-dose purified product as a supplement.
A variety of flavonoids found in dark chocolate made with at least 70 percent pure cocoa (just don't overdo it, because chocolate is high in calories).
Turmeric and curcumin, spices found in Indian and curried foods. Mustard also contains turmeric and can reduce Apo E4 levels.
Learn the truth about Oprah, Dr. Oz and resveratrolGo with the Flow
Your blood feeds your brain nutrients. No nutrients, no brain. No brain, no Super Bowl party this year. So one of your big goals should be to keep your arteries clear and flowing. Reducing high blood pressure to normal improves cognitive function and slows Alzheimer's progression substantially. If you have a diastolic blood pressure of more than 90 (that's the bottom number), then you have a five-times greater risk of getting dementia two decades down the line than if it's below 90.
If you have elevated blood pressure, it may be because your arteries are constricted, often as a result of cholesterol plaques, and limiting the amount of blood and nutrients that reach a particular area. In the case of the brain, not having sufficient blood supplied to that watershed area between the two main arteries is what elevates the risk of stroke.
Consider Your Hormonal Options
Early research on menopausal women showed that boosting estrogen levels delays Alzheimer's. Newer research is less clear, so we don't believe that's reason enough to start taking estrogen. But if you're considering taking it for other reasons, it could be one additional positive factor.
Get in the Game
Our suggestion for a brain-boosting workout: Once or twice a week, choose an exercise that requires not only your body to work, but also your mind, such as Bikram yoga or a game of singles tennis. The sports or exercises that engage you in the moment can really help clear your mind at the same time. You don't need to overdo it. Just 30 minutes of walking a day plus our YOU2 Workout a couple times a week will help you burn 2,000 to 3,500 calories a week—the amount shown to increase telomere length.
Detox Your Life
If you're experiencing memory problems that are causing you alarm, eliminate some key chemicals from your lifestyle first, before adding anything new. That includes such things as artificial foods (like sweeteners), MSG, and even shampoo (better to make sure the inside of your head is clean, isn't it?).
Finally, despite their life-saving benefits, statin drugs can uncommonly cause reversible memory loss, a discussion that you should pursue with your doctor if you are more concerned about your memory than your heart. Surprising tidbit: Even over-the-counter cold and allergy medications can contribute to memory problems; in fact, injecting lab animals with the active ingredient in Benadryl (diphen hydramine) is a research model for memory loss that immediately simulates Alzheimer's.
Learn to Tell a Joke
There's lots of evidence that a good laugh can help improve your immune system, and humor can also have a valuable effect on your memory. Humor requires what the laugh doctors call conceptual blending—that is, the ability to relate the expected to the unexpected; we laugh when something surprising happens. Having a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence. Telling a joke, like being a teacher, is another way to challenge your brain. You have to be able to play mental hopscotch from one word to another to make sure that the story, joke, riddle, or pun combines a set of expected circumstances and unexpected ones (i.e., what happens once the guy walks into the bar?). And ultimately, if you tell it right, you have to have a fair amount of social intelligence as well—the ability to maximize the tension and mystery of the joke until the very last second.
Map Your Mind
One way to strengthen your mind is by flexing parts that you don't use often—like perhaps those associated with imagination. So try this trick from our friend Tony Buzan, next time you're feeling overwhelmed with a task. Map out your to-do list, rather than actually listing it. That is, draw a picture of your issue in the middle of a piece of paper, then branch out from that centerpiece with smaller subsections and keywords related to that issue.
For example, if you want to lose 25 pounds, draw a picture of yourself on a scale in the middle. Instead of making a list of how to do it, draw lines from the center with subcategories of things like food, exercise, pitfalls, supports, and other broad categories that will help you. Then branch out from there with subcategories (food may include such branches as "Eat breakfast," "Eat five small meals a day," and "No more doughnuts"). Why is this helpful? For one thing, starting in the center gives your brain freedom to spread out in different directions; for another, a picture flexes your imagination muscles and also keeps you focused and able to concentrate better. And the branches work because your brain works by association—connect the branches, and you will understand, remember, and act on the problem much more easily.