Beauty & The Brain
Posted On Dec 06, 2010
Staying fit and eating right keeps the brain healthy and bright
It happens to the best of us. A familiar face approaches you with a knowing smile, but you can’t recall the name that should be attached. You stumble over your tongue as your brain races to connect the mental dots. And you pray the other person gives you a clue to who they are before you embarrass yourself.
These memory lapses happen to us often. We forget birthdays, bill payments, even what we ate for breakfast this morning. At best, these slip-ups are merely annoying; at worst, they are downright frustrating and humiliating.
While researchers say these lapses are normal—Freud would even say they are deliberate—most of us would rather not have to explain to our significant others that we “forgot” to buy them an anniversary present.
According to brain and memory specialists, however, the right diet, exercise, and de-stressing techniques can help delay cognitive aging.
Though doctors and researchers cannot collectively pinpoint when the brain starts to age and memory declines, the general consensus is late 20s to 30s. “Difficulty coming up with words and names often begins in a person’s 30s,” says Peter V. Rabins, MD, MPH, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and medical editor of Medical Bulletin at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “The cause of this is not known,” he says, but theories of why we lose our cognitive powers range from cellular deterioration and decline in neural transmitters, to brain tissue inflammation and pre-programmed aging, or “senescence,” in our genes.
According to Gary W. Small, MD, psychiatrist, author and director of the UCLA Center on Aging, genetics is a smaller percentage of the aging process. “If you look at the MacArthur Study of Successful Aging, one-third of what causes cognitive aging is what we inherit from our parents,” Dr. Small says. “Lifestyle choices are more important than what people think.”
Two-thirds to be exact. What we eat, what activities we take part in (or not) and how we conduct our daily lives has a profound effect on the cognitive aging process. “Cognitive aging is influenced heavily by the environment and what we put ourselves through,” says Andre Berger, MD, an anti-aging doctor who practices in Beverly Hills, Calif. “Anti-aging is about what we can do to improve this situation.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
A recent study conducted by Columbia University Medical Center shows that a Mediterranean diet can prevent memory loss by reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. The diet consists of fresh fruits, vegetables, bread and cereals, seeds, potatoes, beans and nuts. Fish, egg and chicken are limited, while red meat is rarely eaten. Researchers also found that participants who consistently ate this type of diet had a 50 percent less chance of developing dementia later in life.
According to WebMD.com, a few other “brain foods” should be put into your daily regimen. Blueberries (high in antioxidants) have been found to protect the brain from oxidative stress, improve motor skills and learning capabilities. Salmon has omega-3, fatty acids needed for brain function, while avocados and wild grains produce healthier blood flow.
What’s good for the body is also good for the brain, according to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The reason: Exercise increases blood flow to all the major organs, including the brain.
Dr. Rabins stresses the importance of exercising five times per week for half an hour for a heart/brain healthy lifestyle. Aerobic exercises, such as jogging, bicycling, swimming, iceskating or rowing, are all great for the cardiovascular system, and delivering a greater flow of blood to the brain.
But physical training is not the only way to get the brain going. Researchers say mental exercises can help improve cognitive processes. Sonia Kothari, 18, is a college student who has participated for three years in the USA Memory Championship, in which people of all different ages compete to see who has the best memory.
For two to three times a week she devotes an hour to mental games, such as learning random numbers, random names and faces, random words, poetry and a deck of cards. Kothari created strategies to retain information better. For example, during the random names and faces exercise, if the person’s name was Baker, she would envision a chef’s hat on top of his picture to recall his name more easily. She says that the years of training have made it easier to study in class and take fewer notes. Also, she thinks it’s just healthy.
“After I would memorize something, I just felt more aware and fresh,” she says. “It makes you think more and expands your view of the way you think.”
At UCLA’s Center for Aging, Dr. Smalls and a few researchers conducted a trial on a group of subjects between ages 40 and 70. For two weeks, the participants devoted half a day to relaxation exercises, a healthy brain diet and memory training exercises. The results showed better efficiency in the front part of the brain and memory score improvements.
“Through intensive exercise you can increase muscle and bone mass,” says Ronald Klatz, founder and president of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine. “Through cognitive exercises you can modify the decline of mental aging.”
A BEAUTIFUL MIND
Although we can’t see the aging process of the brain, it doesn’t mean we should ignore what effects it may have later on in life.
When it comes to intelligence and cognitive functions, we must respect the powers of good nutrition and exercise, including mental exercise. But they leave out one of the worst culprits when it comes to aging: Stress.
While researchers have long realized that stress accelerates the obvious signs of aging, they have only recently connected stress with mental deterioration. Now research by Princeton University’s Department of Psychology has shown that chronic stress decreases neurogenesis—the process of creating new brain cells.
“The reason for plastic surgery is because our bodies age,” Dr. Small says. “We don’t have plastic surgery for the brain, but there are basic principles that help people live better, longer.”