Anti-aging Tactic #2: Invest in Your Brainpower

A slew of recent studies show that you can postpone—or possibly avoid—declines in mental functioning by making simple lifestyle changes

by Joan Raymond
woman head fish image
Photograph: Illustrated by Bryan Stauffer

Step away from the doughnut
Researchers suspect that overeating may be harmful to our brains. A study of the eating habits of over 1,200 older people suggested that consuming more than 2,143 calories a day doubles the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment over the course of 12 months. “Based on previous studies involving humans and experimental animals, I believe that cutting calories may be a simple way to prevent memory loss as we age,” says lead author Yonas E. Geda, MD, associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Eat a cup of yogurt a day
A glass of milk will also do the trick. A study that followed 972 Americans ages 23 to 98 for five years found that those who consumed at least one dairy serving (milk, cheese, yogurt or dairy dessert) a day tested higher on mental functioning than those who didn’t. The possible connection: “We have learned in recent years that components of dairy—calcium, whey protein, vitamin D and magnesium—may play a role in reducing levels of obesity, diabetes and hypertension, all risk factors for impaired cognitive functioning,” says study coauthor Merrill F. Elias, PhD, a psychologist and epidemiologist at the University of Maine in Orono.

Drink up!
You may already know that moderate drinking (generally one alcoholic beverage a day for women) reduces your risk of developing heart disease. Researchers have also found that downing one or two alcoholic drinks a day reduces the risk of dementia by nearly 40 percent among seniors (average age: 79); earlier studies show that moderate drinking also slows cognitive decline among midlifers. And it doesn’t seem to matter if your beverage of choice is Cabernet, vodka or beer, says lead investigator Kaycee Sink, MD, who heads Wake Forest University’s Memory Assessment Clinic in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “Alcohol increases good cholesterol, or HDL, and it acts as a mild blood thinner by blocking platelets,” says Sink. “So if that’s good for your heart, it’s also probably going to be good for your brain.” But beware: Heavy drinking nearly doubled the risk of developing dementia over a six-year follow-up period among the Wake Forest participants who already had MCI. 

Next: Be Healthy in 20 Years: Are You Too Forgetful?

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First published in the May 2012 issue

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