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If you want to protect your brain, you don't need an app for it.
You may have heard developer Lumosity was fined a whopping $2-million by the FTC for claims it deceived customers into believing its computer games improve brain performance.
The good news: there are numerous, simple ways to sharpen your mind that do have science behind them. Even better, many of the lifestyle changes that protect our brains also keep our hearts young.
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Keep this in mind — science doesn't yet know how to keep the brain free of the clumps and tangles of proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. But certain lifestyle tweaks may keep your brain functioning at a high level for a longer time, says James Becker, a professor of psychiatry and an Alzheimer’s expert at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
And that’s really all that matters.
“If we could keep people relatively symptom free for 5 years longer, then half of the dementia cases would disappear,” Becker says. “If we could keep them symptom free for 10 years longer, all dementia would be gone.”
In other words, if you can hold off symptoms, then you’ll likely die of something else before your mental abilities deteriorate.
Here are several ways to help boost brain performance:
Study after study has shown that physical exertion can protect brain cells, says Dr. Paul B. Rosenberg, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
“It seems like aerobic exercise is better than non-aerobic exercise,” Rosenberg says.
“I tell my patients a minimum of 30 minutes a day. There was a neat little study in older adults in which they randomized 100 people to aerobic exercise or stretching. They found that in the folks that exercised, their hippocampus actually grew over the course of a year, while in the sedentary folks the hippocampus shrunk.”
Consume olive oil
A study published earlier this year found that a Mediterranean diet not only protected the heart, but also the brain. Study volunteers who specifically were asked to consume several tablespoons of olive oil every day did better on tests that evaluated thinking speed.
Add fish to your diet
“Eating fish twice a week can have a positive effect on brain structure and function and by implication will delay the onset of clinical symptoms,” Becker says.
The only issue with much of the research looking into these lifestyle factors is that the studies were just observational. That means people weren’t randomly assigned to one behavior or the other and then studied for a period of time. Researchers simply tried to correlate healthy cognition with particular lifestyle factors.
Which means that the evidence isn’t as strong as it could be.
Read and write — often
A study published in Neurology that followed 294 seniors for six years, testing their cognitive abilities annually, found that memory was best preserved in those who read and wrote the most.
When autopsies were performed on participants who died during the course of the study, it became clear that the there was no impact on brain pathology, just on brain performance.
Cut back on booze
This is especially true if you’re a heavy drinker and male: Another Neurology study found that middle-aged men who consumed more than two and a half drinks a day sped their memory loss up by nearly six years. That study followed 7,513 men for more than a decade, testing their memories every four years.
Get your blood sugar under control.
Studies have shown that diabetes can speed cognitive decline. A recent report published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people with diabetes or even pre-diabetes in their 50s were more likely to experience cognitive decline compared to those with healthy blood sugar levels.
Related: Calculate your brain fitness!
Studies that have looked at so-called Super Agers — people who stay cognitively sharp well into old age — have found these people have only one factor in common, says Sandra Weintraub, a professor of neurology, psychiatry and psychology and a neuropsychologist at Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center.
“Some of them smoke, some of them drink, some of them are couch potatoes, some exercise every day, some eat pork bellies and some consume a Mediterranean diet,” Weintraub says.
“What they do have in common is that they are very engaged and active. They’re so busy it’s hard to get them in for research visits.”