Are you brain-healthy? Brain health is one of today's hottest health topics. There is a steady stream of information almost daily from research showing us ways we can remember better every day and even lower our risk for serious memory disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease. But is it all really true? And what exactly are you supposed to do?
As an expert in brain health, I find that many of us aren't sure what we should do to boost our brain fitness. Some of the advice we hear may seem surprising, since the suggestions don't seem at all "brainy," like doing crossword puzzles. Other findings support old-fashioned medical advice on staying healthy that sometimes feels a bit mundane, but also turns out to be critical to long-term brain wellness. In fact, you may have already started on the path to better brain health without even knowing it.
Here are six brain-smart choices you can start making right now to begin revving up your daily recall and lowering your risk for serious memory problems. I love to share these with my clients, as they are all easy to make part of your daily life.
Many of us think about giving our brains a workout, but the kinds of exercise we think of rarely involve working up a sweat. Yet getting off the couch and on your feet is absolutely the best thing you can do for your brain. Studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise boosts our daily intellectual performance and lowers our risk for dementia (by up to 38 percent in some studies). How much exercise do you need? Even just walking at a vigorous pace at least 30 minutes a day, five or six days a week will do the trick.
While there is no "miracle diet" for your brain, what we eat definitely matters to our brain health. A brain-healthful diet supports everyday memory and can protect us from chronic conditions that increase our dementia risk. Studies have shown that maintaining a healthy weight with a low ratio of belly fat can significantly lower our risk for a memory disorder, even beginning in middle age. No need to spend on a special supplement!
Lifestyle choices we make daily, such as how much sleep we get to how stressed we feel, impact memory performance. In addition, staying on top of your medical care is key for addressing issues that affect memory. Managing chronic conditions, such as hypertension or diabetes, can significantly reduce our risk for dementia. Leading a brain-healthful lifestyle is a great way to live better for your brain.
As we grow older, we can experience changes in our everyday intellectual skills. Those changes commonly affect our ability to stay focused, think quickly, multitask and learn new information such as a name. Want to stay sharp no matter what your age? Play games against the clock. Research shows that training in these skills can help stay more effective at them. Timed activities force us to pay attention, work fast and think nimbly. There are many great brain games we can play, from board games to electronic or computer-based games.
Strategies that help us retain information are key for improving everyday memory. We all need a bit of a boost when it comes to remembering things such as passwords, directions and, everyone's favorite, names. Studies have long supported the use of task-specific memory strategies. Learn simple strategies to enhance your daily recall, such as making a connection between something you are learning (like the name "Florence") and something you already know (such the Italian city of Florence). And don't forget those date books and "to-do" lists. These "memory tools" are essential for keeping track of the things we have to do but that aren't worth memorizing.
Research shows that staying intellectually engaged over our lifetime can significantly lower our risk for memory impairment, in some studies by as much as 63 percent. While it isn't clear exactly why maintaining mental challenge matters, most likely such challenges encourage brain plasticity and offer protection against deterioration over time. In addition, intellectual engagement offers us opportunities to socialize and supports emotional well-being, which in themselves are important to better brain health. Look for activities out of your comfort zone -- if you like to read, try a pottery class. Also, look for little ways to "change up" your brain's routine, such as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand, or taking a new route to work.
Better brain health is really the result of better habits across all dimensions of wellness, including our intellectual as well as physical and emotional well-being. These six simple steps are a great way to get started on the path to better brain fitness. Look to continue on that journey yourself by always looking for ways to stay healthy and engaged.
Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D. is a nationally recognized clinical psychologist and brain health/memory fitness expert, and the founder of Memory Arts. Dr. Green is also the author of several books, including "Total Memory Workout: 8 Easy Steps to Maximum Memory Fitness" (Bantam Books). Read more about her on her website, www.totalbrainhealth.com.
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