Body & Fitness

Sharpen up

The good news is there’s plenty you can do to preserve your brain power

The figures are scary – an estimated 44 million people around the world have Alzheimer’s disease and experts reckon that number could double by 2050.

While scientists don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, they do have some idea about steps we can take to preserve our brain health and lower our risk of developing these diseases. Their advice is to:

Challenge your brain

Research shows that the more you challenge your brain with stimulating activities such as reading, writing and solving puzzles, the better your chances of slowing down the decline of brain function linked to dementia. One study followed a group of people over 55, looking at how stimulated their brains were, and after they died, their brains were examined for physical signs of dementia such as lesions and plaques. Those who had been mentally active had a 15% slower rate of brain decline.

Increase brain plasticity

“Plasticity” is a fancy word referring to how easy it is for the neurons in our brains to connect with one another. The more these messenger chemicals are used, the stronger they become. Experiencing things that are new and different can help to increase the brain’s plasticity by encouraging neurons to connect. Learning a new language or how to play an instrument, or even driving home from work a different way, could all help.

Keep calm

When you are stressed your brain releases hormones such as adrenalin and cortisol that are only meant to be emitted in short bursts. If you keep sending them out over a long period of time, they can have a negative effect on your brain function. Too much cortisol is also bad for the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for absorbing and remembering information.

Make more use of all your senses

Using our senses helps to stimulate memory. We tend to rely on eyesight and hearing the most, but trying to use taste, smell and touch where appropriate can also help with brain function. For example, you are more likely to remember someone if you not only look at and listen to them, but if you pay attention to how they smell and how their skin felt when you shook hands.

Eat wisely

Eating around 500g of fruit and vegetables every day throughout your life can reduce the chances of developing dementia when older. Carrots, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, and citrus fruit have all been associated with better brain function, and so has high-fibre bread. You may also want to try a Mediterranean diet – which means eating plenty of olive

oil, nuts, fish, tomatoes, fruit and vegetables (especially dark green, leafy veges). They have been shown to protect brain function.

Check out your nutrient levels

A shortage of vitamin B12 has been linked to brain shrinkage. Good sources of B12 include meat (particularly liver), fish, shellfish, poultry, eggs, milk and yoghurt. Folate is also important. You’ll find it in liver, green, leafy vegetables, lentils, baked beans, broccoli, eggs, tomatoes, bananas, fresh orange juice and strawberries.

Keep an eye on your blood pressure

Having high blood pressure when you are in your forties and fifties makes you more prone to dementia. You can reduce the risk if you get your blood pressure down to normal levels.

Get walking

Aerobic exercise helps brain neurons to connect. One study concluded that middle-aged adults who walked briskly for 45 minutes, three times a week, had increased brain activity and were better able to focus than those who only did stretching exercises.

Other useful steps:

• Cut back on the booze if you are a heavy drinker

• Quit smoking

• Socialise more

• Lose weight if you are overweight or obese.

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