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Feb 2013  |  By Laura Hine  |  Comments

Brain Health at Every Age

No matter how old or young you are, you can take steps to protect and improve your brain’s cognitive function.

According to Dr. Sherrie All,  a licensed clinical psychologist for the Chicago Center for Cognitive Wellness and a consultant with Mather LifeWay’s Brain Fitness Program, “You want to think about your brain like a bank account. If you have high reserves, you can ward off cognitive decline.” She sites autopsies that found some people who were still very functional had brains that showed as much evidence of Alzheimer’s disease as those who were profoundly compromised. The difference might be the level of cognitive reserve the individuals had banked over their lifetime. 

Here are the 6 areas where you can build brain reserve:

1. Physical Exercise

Research shows you can actually grow new brain cells, and exercise is one of the best stimulants. Dr. All says that exercise releases chemicals that are like “Miracle-Gro” for your brain.

2. Intellectual Stimulation

According to Dr. Konstantinos Arfanakis, who just completed a study for Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology, lots of activities beyond puzzles use our intellect in different ways. He recommends going to the theater, writing a letter, reading a book or playing games as fun challenges.

3. Socializing

Friends help protect our brains. It takes cognitive work to organize outings, remember details of others’ lives and navigate social mores (just ask any teenager). “Social isolation is a stress on par with smoking,” Dr. All says. “We are social primates who need to be with others.” 

4. Stress Management

If you don’t take a break from stress, it can be toxic to brain cells. “It’s okay to have challenge,” says Dr. All, but she emphasizes that our systems need breaks, like vacations or meditation, to rest the nervous system.

5. Nutrition

If it’s heart healthy, it’s brain healthy, and that includes moderate consumption of alcohol and coffee (yay!). To keep it simple, focus on whole foods that are full of phytonutrients, and avoid processed and packaged foods. For more healthy foods, check out: 8 Power Foods to Eat for Health and Energy,  5 Things to Eat Now and 10 Snacks for Health

6. Spiritual

While scientists still aren’t sure of the mechanism, they consistently see links between attending religious services and living a longer, healthier life. Even if you don’t actively practice a religion, you can still practice gratitude or believe in a cause that’s bigger than yourself.

Additional reporting by Jody Buck

You might also be interested in this article by by Katherine Bouton from The New York Times, Straining to Hear and Fend off Dementia


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