7 Surprising Ways to Keep Your Brain Young
By Elizabeth Svoboda, Prevention
Get the cognitive power of some one decades younger. (It doesn't get easier than this!)
Around the time we hit 30, our brains begin a slow, steady downward trajectory — or so popular wisdom would have it. But cognitive decline is by no means an inescapable side effect of aging. In fact, according to a flurry of new reports, you can counteract age-related changes in the brain with a surprisingly simple regimen of activities guaranteed to nurture and fortify your mental musclepower. Here are seven easy ways to keep your brain quick, sharp, and bristling with youthful vigor.
When you search the Internet, you engage key centers in your brain that control decision-making and complex reasoning — and these few clicks may be more mentally stimulating than reading, say UCLA scientists. Their studies found that Internet searching uses neural circuitry that's not activated during reading — but only in people with prior Internet experience. MRI results showed almost 3 times more brain activity in regular Internet searchers than in first-timers, suggesting that repeated Googling can be a great way to build cognitive strength over time.
Spend around 20 minutes a few days a week searching topics you've always wanted to learn more about — regardless of how seemingly frivolous: Whether you're researching a celebrity's latest pratfalls or musical harmony, the benefits to your brain are the same.
Yes, exercise can stave off or delay dementia — but did you know that regular workouts can actually reverse aging in the brain? A team from the University of Illinois' Beckman Institute recently reviewed dozens of past studies and found that aerobic exercise boosts not only speed and sharpness of thought but also the volume of brain tissue.
As little as 50 minutes of brisk walking 3 times a week was found to have this brain-expanding effect. For an added boost, walk in the park: University of Michigan researchers found that volunteers whose course took them through a tree-filled setting performed 20% better on memory and attention tests than those who walked downtown.
3. Brush and Floss
Here's yet another reason to practice good dental hygiene: Oral health is clearly linked to cognitive health, according to a team of British psychiatrists and dentists. After studying thousands of subjects ages 20 to 59, they found that gingivitis and periodontal disease were associated with worse cognitive function throughout adult life — not just in later years.
Follow your dentist's advice — floss daily and brush your teeth for 2 minutes at least once a day.
4. Drink Sparingly
Keep your alcohol consumption within the safe and healthful limit: no more than one drink a day. The more alcohol a person drinks, the smaller his or her total brain volume becomes, according to a recent Wellesley College study. The link between drinking and reduced brain volume was stronger in women — probably because smaller people are more susceptible to alcohol's effects.
If you like a glass of white wine with dinner, make a spritzer by replacing some of the wine with sparkling water. You'll cut your intake even more.
5. Eat Blueberries
New research shows that blueberries may help sharpen your thought processes. After National Institute on Aging and Tufts University researchers injected male rats with kainic acid to simulate the oxidative stress that occurs with aging, rats that had been fed a diet containing 2% blueberry extract did better navigating a maze than rats that didn't get the compound. In another study, the same researchers found that rats that ate blueberries showed increased cell growth in the hippocampus region of the brain. The researchers theorize that anthocyanin — the dark blue pigment found in blueberries — is responsible for these cognitive changes; it contains chemicals that may cross the blood-brain barrier and lodge in regions that govern learning and memory.
Stock up on blueberries when they're on sale, and sprinkle them over your cereal or yogurt or fold them into your smoothie. Off-season, buy them frozen; they're every bit as nutritious as fresh.
6. Play Sudoku
Amazingly, you'll knock a decade off your cognitive age. In a University of Alabama study of nearly 3,000 older men and women, those who participated in 10 60-to 75-minute sessions of brain-boosting exercise sharpened their mental abilities so much that their brains performed like those of people more than 10 years younger.
Start small — whip out a booklet of basic puzzles when you're riding to work on the train or waiting in a long checkout line. As your skills improve, graduate to more challenging brainteasers.
More than just a great stress reliever, meditation can also enhance your gray matter, says a new study from Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Participants appear to have experienced growth in the cortex, an area of the brain that controls memory, language, and sensory processing. In addition, meditators in a University of Kentucky study performed better than their non-meditating counterparts on a series of mental acuity tests.
Make the practice a regular habit — the participants in a recent study meditated an average of 40 minutes a day. But you can start with 15 on your lunch break or before you leave for work. Sit upright, close your eyes, and focus on whatever you're experiencing in the present moment, whether it's birds chirping in the distance or just the sound of your own breathing.
I do six of the seven activities listed above. Looks like I'm on the right track! I'll have to work on the meditation part . . .
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
If you feel like you're sneezing more this allergy season, you're probably right. Thanks to global warming, this could be your stuffiest year yet—and it's getting worse.
Virginia Sole-SmithSpring is here, and you know what that means: no more marshmallow coats, no more wiping out on icy sidewalks, no more 48-hour Monk marathons on frigid weekends. But for nearly 36 million Americans, throw-open-the-windows season comes with a major buzzkill: allergies. And they're only getting more severe. Allergies to pollen, ragweed, and other common airborne triggers have doubled in the past 20 years—a 5 percent per decade increase since the 1970s—clogging up even those who've always been sniffle-free. Here are the three reasons your tissue box needs replacing more often—and how you can get some relief.
1. Allergy seasons are longer. "Hay fever is typically caused by trees in the spring, grasses in the summer, and ragweed in the fall," explains Paul R. Epstein, M.D., associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. But thanks to global warming, our growing seasons are lengthening. "In some states, spring is coming 10 to 14 days earlier than it did 20 years ago," says Kim Knowlton, Dr.P.H., a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Health and Environment program. And that trend is likely to continue.
2. Pollen is growing out of control. In case you've erased ninth-grade bio from your brain, here's a recap: To grow, plants require sunlight, water, warmth, and carbon dioxide. But these days they're getting way more of those last two than they need. "Ten years ago we thought, OK, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more energy for plants, so they'll grow better," Epstein says. Weeds (such as ragweed), however, aren't merely flourishing; they're reproducing like jackrabbits. And there's not just extra pollen circulating around your schnoz—the CO2 overload has also led to a kind of superpollen that's more allergenic, so that just a teeny amount can get your nose running.
3. Allergens are invading your body more aggressively. Pollution and smog add ozone and billions of diesel particles to the air, and pollen and pollution are not a good combination. "Pollen grains hitch a ride on these particles, which carry them deeper into your lungs, where they can get lodged inside," Epstein says.
Your Breathe-Easy Battle Plan
Step 1: Crush the Culprits
Strapping on a gas mask and inflating the sterilized bubble that will soon be your new abode? Stop, put down the bicycle pump, and take these easy steps first.
Check the forecast. Find your area's pollen, mold spore, and ozone levels at the sites of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (aaaai.org/nab/index.cfm) or the public-service organization AirNow (airnow.gov). On days when the Air Quality Index is above 150 (100 if you know you're allergy- or asthma-prone), stay behind closed doors as much as you can.
Keep windows shut on bad air-quality days. If things get stuffy, "consider running an air conditioner with a good filter, which traps allergens from outside air," says Jeffrey Siegel, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of civil, architectural, and environmental engineering at the University of Texas. "Just change the filter often, and avoid devices that emit ozone, like ion-generating air purifiers."
Make a costume change when you come inside. That way you won't trek pollen and dust all over your house after gardening or hiking. On laundry day, wash your grubbiest duds in hot water (140˚F) to kill 100 percent of allergy-causing dust mites and most pollen. (Run regular loads on warm then rinse in cold water twice to kill at least 65 percent of dust mites.)
Slip on some shades. Do you spend the spring months looking like an extra in Harold and Kumar's last adventure? Sunglasses can clear things up by keeping pollen off your lashes and lids.
Don't be so rough on yourself. A 2007 study published in Trends in Immunology found that scrubbing with harsh, abrasive soaps and other products can strip away a layer of protective cells on your skin and actually allow allergens to penetrate.
Step 2: Pop a Pill
All that wheezing occurs when your immune system starts to treat harmless substances like pollen, dust, or pet dander as if they're sinister invaders armed with WMDs. Your body's defense is to produce powerful antibodies, which glom onto your cells and start churning out histamine. Histamine keeps the allergens from burrowing further into your body—shutting them out with inflamed nasal passages, expelling them with sneezes, or washing them away with watery eyes. But allergy treatments can interrupt the chain reaction—or even stop it before it starts.
Take an antihistamine at the first sign of a sniffle if you're prone to allergies. "Even nonprescription meds [like Allegra, Claritin, and Zyrtec] can relieve most people's symptoms by blocking the effects of histamine," says Linda B. Ford, M.D., director of the Allergy and Asthma Center near Omaha, Nebraska. "And they're safe to use long-term."
Try a new pharm-free solution if you're pregnant or if regular allergy meds make you fall asleep at your desk. Chloraseptic Allergen Block ($15 for 150 applications, drugstore.com) is a clear gel you apply to the outside of your nostrils. "The gel attracts the particles and then traps them before they can enter your nose," says allergist Paul Ratner, M.D., medical director of Sylvana Research, which spearheaded clinical trials for the product.
See your doctor for allergy testing if OTC meds don't cut it. "First-time allergy sufferers usually chalk up symptoms to a cold, since the symptoms—congestion, itchy eyes—are similar," Ford says. "But if you still feel miserable after a week, you need a new diagnosis." A skin test can determine what's causing your allergies so you can get the best course of treatment. You may need prescription antihistamines or a steroid nasal spray, which works by decreasing swelling inside your nostrils.
Ask about allergy shots if you're looking for a permanent solution. "Injecting tiny amounts of an allergen over a period of time will build up your tolerance to the substance," Ford says. It's a long process—shots take three to five years to reach peak effectiveness—but the benefits are usually long-lasting. Needle shy? The FDA is reviewing clinical trials on a course of immunotherapy drugs that dissolve under your tongue. "They've been used in Europe for several years, but the jury is still out on whether they're as safe and effective as the injections," Ford says.
I seem to have spring allergies. This wasn't always the case. If I recall correctly, it started two years ago. It is very annoying when you can't enjoy the warmer weather after a long cold winter. The constant sneezing and eyes watering gets annoying quite quickly. But I'm too stubborn to take an antihistamine. I don't like taking anything that's unnatural. So, instead, I will brave the allergies and follow the tips above.
But there is something we can all do to slow down the increase in allergies . . . protect your environment!