Ask baby boomers what they’re most afraid of, and the answer might surprise you. Hint: It’s not “dying.” Nope, the No. 1 fear of baby boomers everywhere is memory loss.
And why wouldn’t it be? After all, we’re all within six degrees of knowing someone whose life has been affected by some level of cognitive decline—possibly dementia or even Alzheimer’s. These diseases are no joke. Being unable to recall the characters and details of our own lives, and being unable to access the memories that make us who we are, may even feel like a fate considerably worse than death.
Thus, keeping the brain healthy and functioning is on the top of everyone’s list of health goals, and the good news is there’s a lot we can do to achieve that. These steps include a good diet and plenty of exercise (of course), as well as quality sleep, community and social relations, stress management, and supplementation—every single one of which has a profound effect on the health and function of our brains.
Studies have shown that brain volume and performance both decline with age. But how much—and how much it matters—is open for debate. Because many things within our control can have such a profound effect on performance, brain volume itself may not matter as much. While brain volume peaks at about age 20 and declines as we grow older, what’s important to know is that declining brain volume doesn’t reflect a loss of neurons—the working cells in the brain—but rather, the loss in volume reflects a decline in the number of connections between neurons.
However, it’s also important to know that our brains can continue to develop and remodel. Think of people who gradually recover their abilities after a stroke. The neurons form new connections, much like new trails in a forest. And simple lifestyle measures—like nutrition, exercise, and supplementation—can strongly affect brain function by supporting the ability to form new connections.
Let’s start with diet.
Grandma Was Right
Your grandmother was right—fish really is brain food. If you want to start protecting your brain right away, eat it twice a week, preferably more.
Cold-water fish (such as wild salmon) contain two critically important omega-3 fatty acids that have significant effects on brain function. They go by the unwieldy names of eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid, which (luckily for us) are more commonly known by their nicknames of EPA and DHA, respectively. The critical thing to remember is that these essential fatty acids are highly concentrated in the brain and are your secret weapon in the fight against aging.
Omega-3s are particularly important for cognitive functions (such as memory). They make cell membranes fluid, thus making it easier for information from neurotransmitters to travel in and out. Research has shown that including omega-3 fatty acids in the diet protects against brain injuries, such as stroke, which is caused by plaque buildup and blood clots in the arteries leading to the brain. In fact, eating at least two servings of fish per week can reduce the risk of stroke by as much as 50 percent, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.
An eating pattern that includes foods rich in antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, polyphenols, flavanols, flavonoids, and other chemicals found in whole foods provides a ton of protection for our precious brain cells. Examples include—but are not limited to—grapes, blueberries, spinach, nuts, beans, the wonderful spice turmeric, red wine, and dark chocolate.
One of the main reasons that dark chocolate is considered a superfood is because compounds called polyphenols are shown to support circulation, and circulation is absolutely essential for brain performance. These brain-healthy polyphenols help relax blood vessels. The chardonnay grape also contains high concentrations of the polyphenols found in dark chocolate that have been clinically proven to support cardiovascular (More on the chardonnay polyphenols in just a bit.)
Don’t Stop With Food
For years, the diet establishment led by the American Dietary Association has insisted that you don’t need supplements because “you can get everything you need from food.”
Maybe we could get “all we need from food” in some perfect, mythical world where we all grow our own food organically, live stress-free lives, get enough sleep, aren’t exposed to pesticides, chemicals, or environmental toxins, and eat only animals raised humanely on a pasture, but that’s hardly the world you and I inhabit. Supplementation is a wonderful delivery system for nutrients that are either missing in our diets, or that we consume in amounts too small to make a clinical difference. You could live without supplementation—just as you could live without indoor plumbing—but why on earth would you want to?
Many nutrients—including the aforementioned omega-3s—have been shown to be brain protective, so supplementation with such nutrients makes sense. Some of the newer products on the market are novel combinations of ingredients that can have an impressive effect on the preservation of memory and brain function. One such product is the new MindWorks brain formula by Shaklee.
MindWorks contains a combination of B vitamins—specifically B6, B12, and folic acid—that have been shown in research to lower homocysteine, an inflammatory compound that may increase the risk for stroke. This B vitamin combination was shown to reduce the brain shrinkage rate in subjects with mild cognitive impairment. In addition, it contains a unique and proprietary extract from chardonnay grape seeds that concentrates specific polyphenols that are clinically proven to support healthy circulation.
The formula also contains a specially sourced guarana extract, which is much different than the caffeine concentrates labeled as guarana that you will typically find in energy drinks. The MindWorks extract contains guarana polyphenols, and one serving has less caffeine than a cup of decaf coffee. Guarana extract is a key ingredient that’s been clinically proven to acutely enhance memory and improve reaction time. In two double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials, college students receiving guarana demonstrated a significant improvement on standardized tests for memory, focus, and reaction time.
Two Kinds of Exercise to Improve Memory
Scientists have long established the value of regular physical exercise on brain health, and it doesn’t take all that much to get an effect. Research by Arthur Kramer at the University of Illinois showed that six months of moderate exercise actually increased the volume of both the grey and the white matter in the brain, proving that exercise can build up your brain. And the best part is that it doesn’t take much! A moderate level can do the trick—such as walking 45 to 60 minutes three times a week.
Even if you don’t care much about the physical size of your brain, exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. One theory is that it does so by increasing blood flow to the brain.
But there’s a whole other area of exercise that’s showing a ton of promise for keeping your brain fit and healthy—not surprisingly, it’s called “brain exercise.” Examples abound: crossword puzzles, Sudoku, word searches, and the list goes on. One recently developed program, called CogniFit, takes the idea of brain fitness to the next level.
According to the renowned cognitive psychologist Shlomo Breznitz, the best way to maintain fitness of the brain is through regular cognitive training programs, and that’s the theory on which CogniFit is based. CogniFit starts with a personal assessment meant to determine the state of your cognitive health. Based on that assessment, it creates an individualized training schedule that periodically tracks your progress and adjusts the program as needed. It was developed for people looking to increase their mental acuity and for those trying to fend off a “softening” of their mental sharpness.
There’s been some serious scientific research on various applications for CogniFit. One 2010 study, published in the journal NeuroRehabilitation, concluded “personalized cognitive training is a practical and valuable tool to improve cognitive skills and encourage neuronal plasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis.”
Go Social to Improve Memory
Lastly, there’s another factor that can make an enormous difference in keeping your brain sharp well into your ninth decade and beyond: social relationships. Having friends, community, and other social relationships helps preserve your memory. Harvard researchers looked at data from 16,000 study participants in their Health and Retirement Study and found that those who had the least contact with children, neighbors, and parents had significantly greater memory loss. In fact, their memory declined at twice the rate of those who had the most social connections. “Our study provides evidence that social integration delays memory loss among elderly Americans,” the researchers concluded.
To sum it up: Your brain is much more flexible and dynamic than you might have been led to believe. New pathways and new synapses can always be formed, and loss of memory and sharpness is far from an inevitable consequence of aging. Eat a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet, supplement with omega-3s, try brain nutrition products like MindWorks, exercise regularly (especially walking), do an individualized brain fitness program such as CogniFit, and spend a lot of time interacting with other people.
Come to think of it, that’s much more than a prescription for brain health—it’s a prescription for healthy, happy living.
Jonny Bowden, PhD, CNS, also known as “The Nutrition Myth Buster” ™ is a nationally known board-certified nutritionist and expert on diet and weight loss. He has appeared on the Dr. Oz Show, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, NBC, and CBS as an expert on nutrition has contributed to articles in The New York Times, Forbes, The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Vanity Fair Online, Men’s Heath, Prevention, and dozens of other print and online publications.