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Tips for a Healthy Brain

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was first produced for a presentation to a retired teachers' organization. We thought the content might be helpful to share.

Not quite a year and a half ago I retired. After working close to 50 years, I figured I deserved a break.

But after a few months of reading books and sitting around - a lot - I realized my memory was getting worse and my brain was becoming a lot less sharp. I called it mushy brain.

I'm no expert, but for years I've been fascinated by how the brain functions. So I'm going to share here what I've learned and some tips for keeping our brains vibrant and alive.

Overall health – diet and exercise - is important. If our arteries start getting blocked, it's difficult for our brains to get enough blood and oxygen. This can lead to strokes and even brain damage.

A healthy lifestyle goes a long way toward keeping our blood flowing, but there are other ways to ensure brain health.

How many here get plenty of sleep – 7-9 hours a night?

Brain specialists say sleep helps reset the brain, allows it to heal and can enhance mental health.

New research shows that during sleep, the brain clears out toxins called beta-amyloids that can lead to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

So what can you do if sleep is a problem?

First, do a digital detox – turn off all electronics and screens at least 30 minutes before your head hits the pillow.

Some people don't sleep because their thoughts are racing, provoking anxiety. Experts say we should spend time at bedtime dumping our worries. Actually jot down any lingering concerns and a quick to-do list for tomorrow to help settle your brain.

Spend 5-10 minutes practicing mindful meditation to calm your brain and make it easier to sleep. This also reduces anxiety, depression, fatigue and confusion.

Get comfortable in a quiet place and take a few deep breaths. Focus on each breath as you inhale and exhale, which will help you turn your attention away from your thoughts.

If you're not getting enough sleep at night, try catching up with naps during the day.

And don't sleep with a pillow over your face – that can cause an unhealthy build-up of carbon dioxide that can actually starve our brains of oxygen.

We all know that exercise is important, but what we're really being told is moving our body helps our brain. Walking for 30 minutes a day, taking a dance class, or going for a swim helps keep us slim and fit, and it could improve our cognitive health, too.

A large Canadian study found the more physically active adults are, the higher they scored on tests of memory and problem-solving.

Exercise also boosts blood flow to the brain. And studies have shown it can increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, which naturally shrinks as we age.

New research from Italy suggests that working our leg muscles may be key to getting the maximum brain benefit from physical activity. The researchers found that when we use our legs in weight-bearing exercise, the brain receives signals that spur it to make healthy new cells.

Our eating habits also impact brain health.

Cut back on sugar. Limit alcohol intake. And experts encourage a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in saturated fat, full of the nutrients found in leafy green vegetables, along with whole grains. For many people, this means following the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fish, fruits and vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and avocados, while limiting red meat.

The MIND diet -- a hybrid of the Mediterranean diet and the heart-healthy DASH diet, with an extra emphasis on berries and leafy greens -- was created specifically to boost brain health. It's been shown to lower the odds of Alzheimer's disease.

Good news. One treat to consider adding to your diet: dark chocolate. New research has found that the flavanols in cocoa beans can help improve memory and cognitive function.

Neurologists say coffee in the right dose can help us focus and prevent neurodegenerative disease, but after two cups, the effects can become harmful and the stimulants may get in the way of falling asleep. Most people shouldn't have caffeinated drinks after 2 p.m.

Many of us spend way too many hours watching Netflix or scrolling on Facebook, but experts say we need to spend as much time as possible with friends.

When we're socializing, the blood circulates to several different parts of our brains as we're listening and formulating responses.

And when we're connecting with friends, we're less likely to get depressed. Depression can hamper how well our brain works.

If we're depressed or anxious, the brain becomes so occupied with what-ifs and worries that it's not able to give 100% to learning new things.

You can find many puzzles and brain games online, but experts say building new skills is actually more effective.

Try new things. Take a class. Learn how to cook Indian food, how to play an instrument, even learning the rules of new card games or traveling to an unfamiliar city. Learning new things helps keep our brains healthy by constantly creating new connections between brain cells.

Challenging our brain essentially creates a backup system.

The more intellectual stimulation we have, the more various neural circuits are used. And the more circuits we have, the harder it is for the changes associated with neurodegenerative diseases to manifest.

It's more helpful to master real-world skills than to play online "cognitive enhancement" games.

A higher level of education also is associated with better mental functioning in old age. Experts think that advanced education may help keep memory strong by getting a person into the habit of being mentally active. Challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them.

Pursuing a hobby, learning a new skill, or volunteering for a project that involves a skill we don't usually use can function the same way and help improve memory.

Memory changes can be frustrating, but the good news is that, thanks to decades of research, we can learn how to keep our minds active. There are various strategies we can use to protect and improve memory. Here are several to try.

The more senses we use in learning something, the more of our brain that will be involved in retaining the memory. In one study, adults were shown a series of emotionally neutral images, each presented along with a smell. They were not asked to remember what they saw. Later, they were shown a set of images, this time without odors, and asked to indicate which they'd seen before. They had excellent recall for all odor-paired pictures, and especially for those associated with pleasant smells. Brain imaging indicated that the piriform cortex, the main odor-processing region of the brain, became active when people saw objects originally paired with odors, even though the smells were no longer present and the subjects hadn't tried to remember them. So challenge all your senses as you venture into the unfamiliar.

It's really important that we keep believing in ourselves.

Myths about aging can contribute to a failing memory. Middle-aged and older learners do worse on memory tasks when they're exposed to negative stereotypes about aging and memory, and better when the messages are positive about memory preservation into old age. People who believe that they are not in control of their memory function - joking about "senior moments" too often, perhaps - are less likely to work at maintaining or improving their memory skills and therefore are more likely to experience cognitive decline. If you believe you can improve and you translate that belief into practice, you have a better chance of keeping your mind sharp.

Experts say as we age we need to prioritize our brain use.

Use tools - calendars, planners, maps, lists, folders and notebooks to keep routine information accessible. Designate a place at home for glasses, purse, keys and other items we often use, so we don't need to waste mental energy remembering where we left things.

Repeat what you want to know. If you want to remember something you've just heard, read, or thought about, repeat it out loud or write it down. That way, you reinforce the memory or connection.

For example, if you've just been told someone's name, use it when you speak with him or her: "So, John, where did you meet Camille?"

Repetition is a potent learning tool when it's properly timed. It's best not to repeat something many times in a short period, as if you were cramming for an exam. Instead, re-study the essentials after increasingly longer periods of time - once an hour, then every few hours, then every day.

Spacing out periods of study helps improve memory and is particularly valuable when we are trying to master complicated information.

I used to have an amazing memory, but now I need some tips and tools to make memorization easier.

Using mnemonic clues can help us associate the information we want to remember with a visual image, a sentence or a word – like an acrostic or acronym. How else can we keep our brains sharp?

Maintain good posture. Maintaining an upright, unslouched posture actually improves circulation and blood flow to the brain.

Read books. Reading is beneficial on many levels. When we read, not only do we absorb the information contained in the book, but the act of reading itself builds connections within the brain that make it more versatile.

Paint. Draw or Doodle. Whether it's a masterpiece or a mere doodle, simply making a picture is an excellent workout for the brain.

Listen to music. Music affects the brain profoundly, and has been linked to improved cognition and memory functioning.

Do puzzles. When we challenge and stimulate ourselves intellectually, we exercise our brains and increase mental capacity. Crosswords are a popular choice, but puzzles of all kinds may be similarly helpful.

And finally, here's one of the main things I did to sharpen my brain. Write. You don't have to start an online news site like I did, but journaling or writing stories can make a major difference in brain health. Writing improves working memory and our ability to communicate.

It matters not whether it's an email to family, a private journal or the "Great American Novel."

It's important to know that although there are no clinically proven ways to reverse the course of brain diseases like Alzheimer's, leading a healthy lifestyle that's both socially and intellectually stimulating combats normal, age-related mental decline.

I hope you found some of these tips helpful.

Don't let your brain get mushy and your memory fade.

Don't accept those "senior moments." Let's resolve today to take back our brains.


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