Vitality - Healthy Aging NewsletterFall 2012

Keep Your Brain Healthy and Sharp

Contrary to what we used to think, it is possible to generate new brain cells throughout our lives.

Go to: Vitality newsletter index

Evidence shows that people who get regular exercise, maintain rewarding social connections, and challenge their brain by learning new things tend to preserve memory and cognitive skills into later life.

Tim Scearce, MD, a Group Health neurologist, shares these tips to help keep your brain operating at peak performance.

Get a good night's sleep. Not only does it restore the body, it allows the brain to organize and store memories, and enhances learning and problem-solving skills. If you're not sleeping well, talk with your doctor.

Eat well. For a healthy brain, eat for a healthy heart. This will lower the risk of atherosclerosis, which can lead to strokes and possibly impair memory. Keep your arteries clear and encourage good blood flow to the brain by limiting unhealthy fats and cholesterol in your diet, and choosing whole grains, low-fat proteins, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Get out and about. A rich social life is fun, keeps you sharp, lowers your blood pressure, and lengthens your life. The higher the level of social interaction, the better your cognitive functioning. Volunteer for your favorite organization; check out your local senior center; join a bike, book, or garden club; and call or visit family and friends often.

Move your body. Exercise increases your breathing and heart rate, pumping more oxygen and glucose into the brain. Even 30 minutes of brisk walking daily can improve blood flow and activate areas of the brain associated with memory and learning. Seniors who walk regularly experience less decline in mental function.

Exercise your mind. Challenge your brain in new ways to stimulate the growth of brain cells and create new nerve connections. Start a new hobby, learn a foreign language, dance, make art, visit a museum, cook a challenging meal, read, solve puzzles, take up the ukulele or other instrument, join a debate club, surf the net, or memorize a poem.

Try neurobics. This is a mental exercise that stimulates parts of the brain you don't normally use, making for a more flexible mind. Do something unusual or different. Vary your daily routine, go to work via another route, get dressed with your eyes closed, scramble the things on your desktop, and eat or write with your non-dominant hand.

Manage stress. Chronically high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can damage the hippocampus, a part of the brain that forms new memories. Calm yourself with exercise, meditation, or music, and laugh often. Laughter releases chemicals in the brain that trigger happiness and improve memory.

Other sites: Providers | Producers | Employers