Health & Family

Take a new tack to sharpen your brain

Every day, it seems, a new study reports that caffeine – or fish oil or friendship – lowers the risk of Alzheimer's.

Many of these are “associations” that may or may not have a cause-and-effect relationship. There is still much that isn't known about the disease that slowly strangles the brains of its victims.

But what scientists do know now that they didn't just a decade ago is that people generate new brain cells, and new connections between them, throughout life. And the more mental reserves people build up, experts believe, the better they can stave off age-related cognitive decline.

“It's like having more cell towers in your brain to send messages along. The more cell towers you have, the fewer missed calls,” says P. Murali Doraiswamy, chief of biological psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and co-author of a new book, “The Alzheimer's Action Plan,” which outlines ways to keep even normal brains spry.

Mental stimulation is one key. The more you challenge your brain, the more new nerve pathways you form. A mini-industry of brain teasers, puzzles and computer games has sprung up to help worried baby boomers do just that. But you can give your brain a good workout with just a few modifications in your daily life.

Dive into the unfamiliar

Some of the niftiest are “neurobics” – a term popularized by the late neurobiologist Lawrence Katz for engaging different parts of the brain to do familiar tasks. Try brushing your teeth or dialing the phone with your non-dominant hand. Theoretically, that can strengthen the pathways in the opposite side of your brain.

Since much of the brain is devoted to processing sensory input, Katz also suggested involving more of your senses in everyday activities – such as showering or eating dinner with your eyes closed. “The brain loves novelty,” says Doraiswamy. “It doesn't have to be complicated.”

Activities that challenge your brain on many levels, such as learning how to play a musical instrument or speak a new language, provide great stimulation. So do games like chess, bridge and Stratego that require you to strategize and interact socially at the same time.

Stress has the opposite effect. The stress hormone cortisol depresses the growth of nerve cells and the connections between them. Yoga, meditation, exercise and social interaction can all help alleviate it.

Getting sufficient sleep is also crucial. “REM sleep is when we consolidate memory and cement it in the brain,” says Marianne Legato, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University and author of “Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget.” Untreated sleep apnea can be very detrimental to memory. Age-related declines in testosterone and estrogen also interfere with sleep.

Exercise boosts blood flow to brain

It is almost a given that what is good for your heart is good for your head, and vice versa. Heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity – particularly abdominal fat – all raise the risk for age-related cognitive decline, as does smoking and heavy drinking. A heart-healthy diet with lots of vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grains and olive oil, and a minimum of saturated fat, is brain-healthy as well.

Exercise is emerging as an extremely valuable way to enhance brain health. Studies show that even 30 minutes of brisk walking daily can improve blood flow to the brain, boosting neural growth factors and brain connectivity, perhaps as much as mental cross-training does.

Keep in mind that some widely used medications may block the action of acetylcholine, a brain chemical that is crucial to memory circuits. These medications include some older antidepressants like Elavil, as well as some antihistamines, painkillers, muscle relaxants, antispasmotics and incontinence drugs. “This can be a constant battle – the urologist puts you on a medication, and the memory doctor takes you off,” says Doraiswamy.

Your doctor may be able to prescribe a substitute medication that has less harmful memory effects.

Alas, no guarantees

The sad truth is, you can do everything right and still get Alzheimer's. Like many diseases, brain aging appears to be a complex mix of genetic and environmental factors. “Lifestyle changes may be able to determine which genes are expressed or silenced,” says Doraiswamy. “But there is no magic bullet, and we don't have all the answers yet.”

In the meantime, the strategies outlined above are good for your overall health, and they may shore up your defenses against all kinds of cognitive decline.