Genius Brain Habits
Healthy habits that boost your mind and memory
A rich new area of science is analyzing which healthy habits best keep your mind and memory blithely unaffected even when a brain scan would reveal the inflammation, free radical damage and weakened synapse connections that often cause 'senior' moments in the 40s and beyond. Kenneth S Kosik, MD, co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, USA, has studied which habits most powerfully boost our cognitive function. Here, he shares the most up-to-date research from innovative labs plus the best tips from his book Outsmarting Alzheimer's (Reader's Digest, Rs 1,367; outsmartingalzheimers.com, available online).
Play Games with Your Frontal Lobe
Whether you're deliberating a chess move or bluffing at cards, you're also giving the frontal lobe, the area of your brain that handles executive function, a workout. "The frontal lobe is particularly vulnerable to degeneration and the effects of ageing," says Kosik. According to a 2014 University of Wisconsin study, older adults who routinely worked on puzzles and played board games had higher brain volume in the area responsible for cognitive functions, including memory, than those who didn't.
Stay Young with Saa, Taa, Naa and Maa
Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, president and medical director of the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation, USA, has spent many years studying the meditative tradition called Kirtan Kriya and has found that daily 12-minute sessions of the practice can improve blood flow to the brain and possibly even increase levels of telomerase, an enzyme that slows cell ageing. The practice is simple: While breathing deeply, chant saa, taa, naa, maa (which broadly mean 'my divine self') while moving your thumb to touch your index, middle, ring and little fingers with each new sound. Like any meditation, it may help to lift anxiety and fatigue.
Protect Your Mind from Your Heart
Scientists surveyed volunteers on seven familiar heart-health factors and tested their cognitive performance at two points over eight years. The results found that the more heart-healthy habits people had, the less cognitive decline they exhibited. A stronger cardiovascular system means a stronger pipeline of nutrients to the brain, says lead author Hannah Gardener, ScD, an epidemiologist in the Department of Neurology at the University of Miami, USA. The seven heart-health ideals to strive for may be familiar (if they seem overwhelming, Gardener points out that "each one helps"):
1. Not smoking (or quitting)
2. Healthy body mass index (under 25)
3. Physically active ( for at least 150 minutes a week)
4. Healthy total cholesterol (under 200 mg/dL)
5. Healthy blood pressure (under 120/80 mmHg)
6. Healthy blood sugar (under 100 mg/dL)
7. Balanced diet (rich in fruits, veggies and whole grains; low in sodium and sweets)
Lift the Quality of Your White Matter
As the brain ages, its white matter often develops small lesions because of disrupted blood flow, leading to impaired cognitive function and mobility. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, wanted to determine whether strength training might offer protection. Women ages 65 to 75 who already had lesions were divided into three groups: once-a-week strength trainers, twice-a-week strength trainers and those who did other exercise. The results: Women who strength-trained twice a week showed significantly less progression of white matter lesions than the other two groups. Key moves you can try at home (using small, filled-up water bottles for weight): biceps curls, triceps extensions, calf raises, mini squats, mini lunges and lunge walks; aim for 45 minutes a session.
Make Moves Directly Against Alzheimer's
Exercise benefits the brain by improving vascular health-but newly published research suggests it also combats the chronic neuroinflammation observed in Alzheimer's disease, depression and other brain ailments. In such neurological conditions, the inflammation that normally clears tissue damage doesn't shut off and starts to interfere with communication between neurons. Exercise has proven anti-inflammatory effects against diseases like diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, so that could be why it protects brain health as well, says assistant professor Jonathan Little, PhD, in a review article in Brain Research Bulletin. "Any type of moderate-intensity exercise, such as walking, cycling and swimming, can have anti-inflammatory effects," says Little. Aim for about 30 minutes a day.
Get Brain Circuits Singing
Listening to or playing music can activate the motor cortex (touching a piano key or guitar string), the auditory cortex (hearing the notes you make) and the emotional centre, or limbic system (feeling moved by a beautiful passage). "Circuits and networks are stimulated by these activities, which help keep the brain healthy," says Kosik. Older adults who had at least 10 years of musical experience did better on cognitive tests, according to a 2011 Emory University study.
Be a Drama Queen
Learning lines for a production or an acting class engages the hippocampus, the temporal cortex and the frontal lobe, says Kosik. So follow the lead of one of Jon Lovitz's Saturday Night Live [popular American live sketch comedy show] characters, Master Thespian: In one study, those who went to acting classes twice a week for four weeks boosted their ability to remember words, numbers and short stories. A follow-up study found they improved word fluency by 12 per cent and word recall by 19 per cent.
Draw Out Your Neural Connections
When you draw, paint or sculpt, you have to make spatial calculations and focus attention on details, Kosik says. Engaging in these activities helps protect the elderly from mild cognitive impairment, according to a 2015 Mayo Clinic study. Also, 60- and 70-year-old art-class participants boosted scores on psychological resilience tests; MRI images showed their synapses had formed new connections.