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

In the past few years, researchers have been working to discover how to prevent memory loss and other types of mental decline as we age. The good news: While genetics and aging (especially reaching 70 and beyond) can take a toll on your mental quickness, changing how you eat, exercise and spend your free time can slow down and possibly reverse damage to your brain. Here are six ways to boost your brain’s staying power.

Eat fish regularly
Brains normally shrink as we age, mostly after 60. But a University of Pittsburgh study found that consuming fish can slow that process: Over 10 years, people who ate baked or broiled (but not fried) fish at least once a week had less brain-volume shrinkage in key areas related to dementia compared with those who consumed less fish. The fish eaters also showed a reduced risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI, a possible precursor to dementia) or Alzheimer’s.


What’s the link between fish and mental muscle? Probably omega-3 fatty acids, which are commonly found in fatty fish such as tuna and salmon. Research reported in the February issue of Neurology noted that having low blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids is associated with more brain shrinkage. “People with lower blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids had reduced brain volumes that were equivalent to about two years of structural brain aging,” says study author Zaldy S. Tan, MD, a member of UCLA’s Easton Center for Alzheimer’s Disease Research. This aging in turn translates to poorer performance on tests for visual memory, abstract reasoning and multitasking.

Omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), have been linked in research to better brain health because they reduce inflammation in the body and improve circulation by slowing the growth of plaque in the arteries, among other benefits. While it’s not known how much fish translates into adequate blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids, “I always tell people to eat fish, particularly tuna or salmon, several times a week,” says Michael Rafii, MD, PhD, director of the Memory Disorders Clinic at the University of California in San Diego.

Find a purpose in life
A study of more than 950 people conducted by researchers at the Rush Memory and Aging Project in Chicago showed that those who said they had a strong sense of purpose in life were almost two and a half times as likely to remain free of Alzheimer’s as those who said they didn’t. The more purposeful subjects also showed a lower risk of developing mild cognitive impairment. Doing what you enjoy is what gives your life some meaning. “This could be as simple as volunteering at an animal shelter or getting involved with a community group or engaging with your kids, family and friends,” says lead investigator Patricia Boyle, PhD, a neuropsychologist with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. This kind of involvement, she says, prevents you from getting bogged down “with work and the mundane and can help you stay mentally sharp in the long term.”

Work up a sweat
If you haven’t already started exercising, do it now: A Mayo Clinic study of some 1,300 adults showed that making time for regular, moderate workouts (consisting of exercises like brisk walking, aerobics or swimming) reduced the likelihood of developing mild cognitive impairment among people ages 50 to 65 by nearly 40 percent. In a study from the University of Washington in Seattle, women with mild cognitive problems who did a high-intensity workout of 45 to 60 minutes on a treadmill or stationary bike four days a week for six months increased their ability to plan, organize and multitask.

“We hypothesize that aerobic exercise improves the health of blood vessels in the head, which in turn helps move oxygen and other nutrients to the frontal and temporal lobes in the brain, areas that support cognitive abilities,” says Laura Baker, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. If you can’t fit that kind of workout into your schedule, don’t worry, Baker says. “Focus on increasing the amount of physical activity you complete each day, even if that’s just by a small amount.”

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 Thu, 2012-04-05 12:00

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