Contestants on TV’s “Fear Factor” ate squirming cockroaches, sat in a bathtub of leeches and dangled from a flying helicopter. What could be scarier? Well, a new Silver Surfers survey names brain-zappers like dementia the most-feared health concerns, yet too many people take the wrong steps to protect their mind.
Nearly 2,000 people who responded to the survey said reading and crossword puzzles could guard against dimming memory and slowed-down thinking. Nobody mentioned exercise, though 76 percent thought dancing could help. (That’s taking the right steps!)
More than 5 million North Americans have Alzheimer’s disease; millions more have mild cognitive impairment – early warning signs of life-altering brain changes – and other forms of dementia. Some of the risk for developing cognitive problems is genetic, and news reports often focus on scary-sounding aspects of dementia that seem beyond your control, like the brain plaques and amyloid tangles of Alzheimer’s disease. But there’s plenty most of you can do right now to guard your little gray cells and the brain’s neural network of connections that let you love, live, work and play.
Our advice? Re-channel your fear into adopting some brain-nurturing steps that are proven to cut dementia risk:
1. Start by controlling your stress response Just one high-anxiety experience can kill off cells in your brain’s memory and learning center, the hippocampus. A major stressful event also can shrink another brain area that helps control emotions, as well as blood sugar and blood pressure. That’s a double whammy, because rising blood pressure and blood sugar in turn threaten brain cells and the delicate network of blood vessels that supports them.
2. Eat brain-power foods Put lots of veggies, a couple of nuts and 100 percent whole grains on your plate every day. Frequently fit in berries, beans, fish and only good fats like olive oil. Why only good fats? Well, the good (and great-tasting) fats are best for your brain, and bad fats (sat fats, for example) can kill brain cells. So cut way back – like, to zero – on red meat, cheese, butter, stick margarine, sweets and fried foods.
In one recent Rush University study, people who ate this delicious way for four and a half years reduced their risk for Alzheimer’s by 53 percent. This diet fills your body and brain with nutrients that are building blocks for cell walls, and it helps protect neurons against the effects of aging.
3. Practice mindful meditation Meditate for 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the evening. Find a quiet space. Close your eyes. Focus on your breathing. Keep your thoughts in the present. If your mind wanders, bring your thoughts back to your breath. More instructions are atsharecare.com.
4. Move, move, move Exercise grows new brain cells and nourishes new connections between them. You’re suddenly smarter! In a new Boston University study, older adults who logged more daily steps, walking or running, had sharper memories than those who logged more butt-in-chair time. Those who got 32 minutes of activity a day were notably better at matching names with faces and did better on tests measuring how they processed visual information, crucial for driving, and had better attention and focus than those who got 10 or 20 minutes daily. Physical activity also might inspire you to eat better and help whittle your waistline – that helps cool off inflammation. Trimming your torso also will reduce the flow of nasty compounds that ooze from belly fat and harm brain cells. And activity can include everything from walking to swimming, strength training, cycling or waltzing, shakin’ a sexy samba or rocking a country line dance.
5. Stimulate your little gray cells Take a college course or learn a new language, and yes, reading and crossword puzzles do work. If you’re a longtime fan of crosswords, for example, consider math puzzles like Sudoku for mental cross-training. Challenging your brain is proven to keep thinking and memory skills stronger, faster and more flexible. That’s smart!
See related story, Pages 8-9
Dr. Mehmet Oz is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Buffalo native Dr. Mike Roizen is chief wellness officer and chairman of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.