9 Healthful Ways To Boost Your Brain Function And Smarten Up Now

Just like the rest of your body, your noggin? needs nourishment?and exercise. Research on brain health shows that what you eat and how you live can affect memory, mental acuity, concentration and possibly help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Here are nine ways to benefit your brain:

1. Add Antioxidants. Research from the Chicago Health and Aging Project suggests that older folks who eat at least two cups of vegetables a day can slow mental decline by about 40% more than those who eat less than one serving a day. Eating fruit did not offer the same mental benefits; what people put on veggies (e.g., salad dressing or margarine, which both contain vitamin E) may give vegetables the edge. Still, many animal studies suggest that the antioxidants in certain fruits?notably blueberries?help reverse age-related declines in thinking and neuromotor skills by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. While researchers caution they don’t know if the cognitive benefits seen in animals translate to humans, the research suggests a way the brain might protect itself from mental decline.

2. Break for Breakfast. Eating breakfast refuels your brain after a lengthy “fast.” The brain can use only glucose, which it gets from carbohydrates or by conversion from protein or fat. So when you skip breakfast, you?re asking your brain?and your body’to function on “empty.” It’s no surprise if you?re not as alert or able to reason and remember things as well as when you?re properly fueled up. Studies with adults found less anxiety and fewer cognition problems among breakfast eaters.

Fuel your brainpower by eating a breakfast high in complex carbs and protein, but low in sugar and moderate in fat. Try eggs with a side of whole-wheat toast, oatmeal with milk and sprinkled with dried fruit or whole-grain toast with peanut butter and banana slices.

3. Be a Fat Head. Your brain cells are made up mainly of fat. That’s why it’s important to avoid the wrong kinds of fat in your diet; a high intake of saturated or trans fats can double your risk of developing Alzheimer’s compared to diets low in these fats. One reason: Harmful fats increase blood cholesterol, which in turn causes inflammation and oxidation of vessels around the brain, affecting long-term memory loss. Focus on getting the essential fatty acids your brain needs from fish mostly, but also from flax meal, walnuts and canola oil.

4. Boost Bs. Several studies suggest that getting adequate B vitamins may protect against age-related mental decline. A study from the University of Oxford found that older people with lower-than-average vitamin B12 levels were six times more likely to show signs of brain shrinkage, which is linked to impaired cognitive function and Alzheimer’s disease. The study didn’t prove low B12 levels cause brain atrophy, but it suggests that people vulnerable to deficiency, including older people and vegans, should make it a priority to get adequate B12 from foods (meat, dairy, shellfish, eggs, fortified cereals or supplements).Another B vitamin, folate (found in leafy greens, citrus fruits and dried beans and peas), boosted memory and reaction time in a Dutch study of older people. An Australian study found that taking folate improved memory and the ability to plan, while B6 improved verbal ability. However, recent findings from the Alzheimer Disease Cooperative Study found that a regimen of high-dose B vitamins (folate, B6 and B12) did not slow the cognitive decline in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. Eat a well-balanced diet that includes foods?not necessarily supplements?rich in these B vitamins to fuel your body and your brain.5. Make it Mediterranean. The Mediterranean diet (see related story, page one) has been linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that subjects who closely followed a Mediterranean-style diet lowered their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 68%?and even those participants who only loosely followed a Mediterranean diet pattern experienced a protective effect.

6. Fish for Omega-3s. Captain Joseph Hibbeln, M.D., of the National Institutes of Health, has spent years studying omega-3s? effect on brain and emotional health.

“There is consistent data showing that diets rich in omega-3s?especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)?can help protect against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well as psychiatric disorders like depression and violence,” he says.

Hibbeln recommends getting omega-3s by eating fish?especially anchovies, herring, lake trout, mackerel, salmon, sardines and tuna’two or three times a week. What about mercury contamination? In Hibbeln’s opinion, the risk of not eating fish far outweighs any negative effects from mercury, pointing to studies around the globe that show diets of children with low fish and omega-3 intakes have lower verbal I.Q. scores and delayed motor development as they age.

7. Take Time for Tea. Theanine, a unique amino acid found almost exclusively in tea, may help improve people’s ability to focus and perform on tests.

“Our research shows that 50 milli-grams of theanine’the amount in three to five cups of tea?produces an alert, yet relaxed, state of mind,” says John Foxe, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at City College in New York. When Foxe and his team examined a combo of caffeine (known for improving mental performance) plus theanine, the mental boost was more significant than with
either one given alone. Participants were better able to stay alert and focus on a task. It appears tea’s unique effects on focus and concentration may be due to the natural combination of theanine and caffeine that a “cuppa” contains.

8. Get a Move-On. While exercise has long been associated with relieving stress and improving mood?as well as providing cardiovascular benefits?recent research shows that regular physical activity may help delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Whether you play tennis, walk the dog or swim laps, it’s extra motivation to know you?re exercising your brain as well as your body.

9. Play Mind Games. Be sure to flex your mind muscles to keep your brain young. The ability to process information can always be improved, no matter your age. Any activity that stimulates your brain will do: solve crossword and Sudoku puzzles, play board and card games and read. One study of mentally intact adults in their 70s and 80s found that those who did the most activities requiring mental engagement were half as likely to develop mild cognitive impairment as those who did few such activities.

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