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Brain Health Part I: Tips for Keeping Your Mind Sharp
Brain Protecting Basics and New Research
Studies have shown that some basic health habits can help prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia: Healthy eating, staying physically active, not smoking, sleeping well, limiting alcohol intake, and maintaining good social connections. Challenging the brain with mental exercise is also thought to help maintain brain cells and stimulate signaling between them. This issue of Staying Healthy takes a look at recent insights into brain protective practices and key strategies for boosting mental function (part II will focus on culinary culprits in brain health).
Get a Good Night’s Sleep.
All of us can attest to the refreshing feeling that a good night’s sleep provides (and to the mental fuzziness that can result from inadequate or poor quality sleep). But in addition to renewing energy and consolidating memories, brain-protective processes with long-term implications also appear to be at work when we sleep.
In a series of animal studies (1), researchers found that while asleep the brain is busy cleaning out cellular “trash” and toxins that accumulate during waking hours, including proteins (beta amyloid and tau) associated with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. While more research needs to be conducted in humans, it appears that insufficient or disturbed sleep impairs the brain’s ability to get rid of this neural waste. Experts suggest 7-9 hours of sleep nightly.
Choose Brain-Boosting Beverages.
Coffee, green tea and cocoa seem to top the list. Coffee (caffeinated) may improve memory according to new findings (2). While caffeine is known to support mental performance, it has been thought to have little or no effect on longer-term memory retention. Researchers showed that volunteers given caffeine right after standard recognition memory tasks, per-formed better at similar tasks the next day versus those given a placebo.
A number of recent studies are stimulating interest in green tea’s potential to protect brain cells and promote brain performance. In one study (4), researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe the brains of people during tests of working memory – memory that allows the brain to process and store information at the same time. Compared to those getting a placebo, participants given green tea extract had increased activity in an area of the brain where working memory is processed.
Many individual nutrients contribute to maintaining good mental function as we age, including B-vitamins, antioxidants, flavonoids and omega-3 fatty acids. But examining the influence of an overall eating pattern on cognition instead of a single or a few nutrients allows us to study the synergy among these nutrients.
One way of eating that emphasizes brain-supporting nutrients is the Mediterranean diet (Med diet). It includes olive oil as the main dietary fat, and is high in plant-based foods (fruits, nuts, vegetables, beans and minimally processed or whole grains). It also includes ample amounts of fish and seafood, while dairy and meat are eaten more sparingly.
The results of a recent randomized trial found that the Med diet improves long-term mental function in older individuals (5). Study participants assigned to a Med diet plus extra virgin olive oil or nuts fared significantly better on a battery of cognitive tests after 6 ½ years than did those on a low fat diet.
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