You've fretted about your crow's feet, turkey neck and muffin top. But what about your brain? How can you make sure it stays fit and healthy as you grow older?
By reading, writing and playing a wide assortment of games. Or so says a new study that linked mental activities with healthier brains later in life.
While previous research has shown a connection between late-life cognitive activity and better mental acuity, the new study from Dr. Konstantinos Arfanakis and colleagues from Rush University Medical Center and Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago goes a step further by studying what effect this cognitive activity might have on the brain's white matter.
And white matter is key, providing the essential connectivity that draws different regions of the brain together into networks so that they can perform various mental operations.
"The activities we studied in our work involved only the following: reading the newspaper, books, magazines, writing letters, visiting a library, attending a play and playing games such as chess or checkers," Arfanakis said. "It's hard to believe though that other mentally engaging activities such as learning a language would not have a similar effect (but we do not currently have any proof for activities other than the ones we studied)."
The study included 152 elderly participants, with an average age of 81, who were without dementia or mild cognitive impairment. Researchers asked the participants to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 the frequency with which they participated in a list of mentally engaging activities during the last year. An analysis revealed significant associations between the frequency of cognitive activity in later life and healthier brain performance.
"Keeping the brain occupied late in life has positive outcomes," Arfanakis said.
But what's the difference between this study and previous ones on mental activities and health?
"Most previous work on the relation between cognitive activity in late life and cognition has ignored the characteristics of the brain, treating the brain as a black box," Arfanakis said. "In our study, we looked inside this black box."
More specifically, he said, researchers studied the microstructural integrity of white matter -- the wiring of the brain -- in elderly persons with different levels of cognitive activity in late life.
"We discovered that elderly persons with a high frequency of cognitive activity have higher microstructural integrity in brain white matter than persons with lower frequency of cognitive activity," Arfanakis said. "Since the microstructural integrity of white matter naturally declines with age, our findings suggest that cognitive activity in late life may be protecting cognition by maintaining the condition of brain wiring."
In addition to Arfanakis, many researchers have urged people to perform "mental gymnastics" such as word problems as they grow older, in order to keep the mind sharp.
That doesn't mean you should pour out a bag of Skittles at each meal. Try to eat foods of a variety of natural colors to gain antioxidants, said Dr. Amen.
Just because something is a fruit, doesn't mean you should chow down on it, according to Dr. Daniel Amen, author of "Use Your Brain To Change Your Age." For brain health, Dr. Amen recommends food with a low glycemic index -- which measures how quickly food increases blood sugar -- and a lot of fiber, which benefits your intestinal tract. Certain fruit like pineapple and watermelon have high glycemic indexes and should be avoided, advises Dr. Amen. Instead, incorporate fruits like blueberries, apples, oranges, cherries, kiwi, strawberries and raspberries. When it comes to fiber, consider adding coconut to your diet. Correction: In a previous version of this slide, "blood pressure" was incorrectly inserted where "blood sugar" is.
Don't eliminate all of the fat in your diet. Instead, focus on incorporating good fats. In fact, if your cholesterol drops too low, you may be at greater risk for depression, according to Amen and several studies on low cholesterol. So what exactly are "good fats"? Dr. Amen advises people to eat foods rich in omega-3s to promote brain health, including almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, fish, lamb, avocados and green leafy vegetables. Another added benefit of eating good fats? "Your vitamins are actually absorbed better when you eat them with a little bit of fat," said Dr. Amen.
While you generally want to avoid bad fats, if you choose to eat steak, "you want to go with grass-fed, hormone-free, free-range meats" rather than grain-fed meats, said Dr. Amen. "When you feed the animals the high-glycemic foods, they actually produce less of the good fat and more of the bad fat. So they're not as good for you." In other words, what your food eats affects your health too, according to Dr. Amen. Photo courtesy of mdid
Next time you're whipping up some grub, turn to your spice rack for an extra brain boost. Spices and herbs may do more for your health than you realize. According to Dr. Amen, cinnamon balances blood sugar; garlic, oregano and rosemary increase blood flow to the brain; curry acts as an anti-inflammatory; and saffron can have anti-depressant effects. Photo courtesy of S. Diddy
Next time you're craving a cold glass of juice with your breakfast, think again. "Juice is sugar that is unwrapped from its fiber source, and whenever you unwrap sugar from its fiber source, it can turn toxic in your body," said Dr. Amen. Photo courtesy of Leonid Mamchenkov
You may be dreaming about that delicious breakfast muffin all night, but you should probably steer clear of the breakfast pastries. "There's way too much bad fat and sugar," said Dr. Amen. Instead, he recommends a protein-heavy breakfast like a few boiled eggs, nuts and an apple. While Dr. Amen suggests eating lean protein at each meal, he believes it is "especially important in the morning because it helps you focus," he said. Photo courtesy of Nicola since 1972
The last thing you need when you're trying to eat healthy are friends who try to coerce you to be unhealthy. "You have to deal with the food pushers in your life because they'll steal your health," said Dr. Amen. "The health of the people you spend time with will often determine your longevity." Make sure your friends understand and support your decision to eat healthier, and try to find other people who who are on the same healthy path as you.