With a blood pressure cuff, a scale and a blood draw, your doctor can tell a lot about your heart health. It’s not that easy to do a brain check: There are no simple tools for gauging your gray matter. Scientists can look inside, though, and what they see isn't always pretty.
Age-related brain plaques, which may play a role in Alzheimer's disease, can start forming in your 40s. And Alzheimer's diagnoses may nearly triple by 2050, say researchers reporting in the journal Neurology. Keep your brain buff with these tips.
1. Be like Popeye.
... And love olive oil. In a study from Spain, men who ate about 4 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil a day showed better language comprehension, attention and abstract thinking than those on a low-fat diet. Its antioxidants (Italian olive oil has the most) may reduce brain inflammation. What's more, olive oil is among the 40 heart foods to eat after 40.
2. Shovel in the salad.
"Antioxidants in fruits and vegetables protect your brain from wear and tear and the stress of aging," said Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center. A 40-year-old guy should consume at least 2 cups of fruit and 3 cups of vegetables a day, the USDA notes.
3. Become a fishmonger.
The omega-3 fatty acids in fish (or fish-oil supplements) help form the myelin sheaths that line your brain's "wiring"; their breakdown is a factor in both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, according to Dr. George Bartzokis, a professor of neuroscience at the UCLA Brain Research Institute.
4. Dine with wine.
Drink a glass of red wine every day and make it merlot. This type has the most resveratrol, an antioxidant that protects neurons from damage, noted William J. Tippett, director of the University of Northern British Columbia Brain Research Unit. Dark chocolate has resveratrol, too. Try 2 ounces. And if you need more reasons to drink a glass or three (as if!), be sure to bone up on the 80 amazing benefits of wine.
5. Drop your blood pressure.
The higher your systolic blood pressure is when you're younger, the more likely you are to lose gray matter in key areas as you age, scientists at UC Davis found. Chronically high blood pressure (above 120/80 mmHg) deprives your brain of blood and nutrients. Have your blood pressure checked yearly after age 40. If your levels are running a bit high, here are a few ways to lower your blood pressure.
6. Boost your memory.
In a study reported in Psychological Science, college students who practiced mindfulness — awareness of the moment — for two weeks showed memory improvements. Want in? Find a program that teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction or take a yoga class.
7. Nourish your neurons.
Just 15 to 20 minutes of cardio a day can lower Alzheimer's risk, said Small, coauthor of The Alzheimer's Prevention Program. Increased blood flow helps brain cells communicate better, he said. Strength training works, too — focusing on form can give an added boost.
8. Siphon off stress.
Stress can increase cortisol in your body, said Tippett. This affects memory, learning and the production of neurotransmitters. Meditation is one proven way to ease anxiety, and it's easier than you think. Forget about mantras; just sit quietly and try to feel some peace.
9. Mind your melon.
Just one concussion can lead to lasting brain damage. Wear helmets with MIPS (multi-directional impact protection system) technology, which minimizes rotational acceleration in crashes.
10. Beware of belly fat.
Men in a Kaiser Permanente study who packed on the most abdominal fat by their 40s were the most likely to develop dementia later on. Fat cells increase inflammation throughout your body and brain. Weight training three days a week may be the best way to melt visceral fat.
11. Do more things you're not good at.
You'll help grow new brain connections. Can't sing? Keep trying. A mess at chess? Challenge the kids. "As we become older, we tend to do things we're already good at," said Tippett, "But you have to step out of your comfort zone to keep your cognitive edge."
12. Stay classy.
Sign up for a free online class or take courses at a community college. In a study from Germany, people who spent more time on brain-stimulating activities cut their risk of Alzheimer's and mild cognitive impairment by 62 percent, compared with people who spent less time on these activities.
13. Embrace the new.
Learning new things spurs neurogenesis, or brain-cell birth. Try this exercise from Tippett's Building an Ageless Mind. Write out the alphabet and give each letter a corresponding number, skipping every other letter and every other number. Then below, fill in the skipped letters and numbers so you have two rows.
A/1 C/3 E/5 U/21 W/23 Y/25
B/2 D/4 F/6 V/22 X/24 Z/26
Now, using the corresponding letters, start spelling words numerically. So the word "brain" becomes 2-18-1-9-14. Next, try the words "health," "exercise," and "stimulate." Once you become adept, share your secret code with your spouse. Then leave text messages like 13-5-5-20 13-5 9-14 20-8-5 2-5-4-18-15-15-13. And for more fun ways to sharpen your brain, play any of the cutting-edge video games that will make you a smarter person.
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This article was originally published on April 5, 2018.