Posted On Feb 16, 2021
Surprising neuroscience proves you can change your brain for the better. But it takes mindfulness and thought. Here’s the latest good news on keeping your mind sharp as well as debunking common myths about your brain health.
By Echo Garrett
Although we rarely let the admission cross our lips, our greatest fear is becoming mentally incompetent. We do brainteasers and take supplements to stave off what we’ve been primed to believe is inevitable.
In fact, that fear is not unfounded. The Alzheimer’s Association says one in three seniors die with Alzheimer’s or another dementia, and the numbers of those with high blood pressure—a risk factor for dementia and stroke—and diabetes and pre-diabetes, which have been linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s, are also off the charts.
The good news is that no matter our age, we can always improve our brainpower. The keys are exercising your brain, feeding it properly, and decreasing stress, which balances your hormones.
“Your brain is the most changeable part of your whole body,” says Sandra Chapman, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas, and author of Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Brain’s Creativity, Energy, and Focus. “Our brain peaks at age 48 mainly because we let our brain decline—not because it has to. A lot of people think they don’t have to worry about brain health until they are older, but what you do in your 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond matters. Your brain changes moment to moment.”
A 30-year veteran in the neuroscience field, Dr. Chapman insists that although medicine has actively promoted heart health for the past 40 years, experts are really just on the cusp of understanding the power we have to keep our brains healthy, well into advanced age. “Up until five years ago, researchers didn’t recognize how much growth of new neurons and new connections the brain was capable of,” she says.
Train Your Brain
Scientific evidence proves while certain common habits may harm the brain, cognitive training can strengthen it. Here are six core strategies Dr. Chapman’s research demonstrates that may be used to help your brain achieve optimal performance:
DITCH THE ROUTINE. Your brain hates being in a rut and loves to go into new territory. “Once we hit our 40s, we tend to settle into our comfort zones, but the most amazing way to get your brain turned on is to give it an innovative new challenge,” she says.
NIX MULTI -TASKING. As women, we often take pride in our ability to juggle and think that is good for our brain. “Multitasking breaks down your brain function,” Dr. Chapman says. “It causes poor performance, increases errors, and takes longer to complete a task than if we’d focus on one thing at a time. Chronic multitasking increases stress levels significantly. When we push our brains too hard, higher levels of cortisol surge and are literally toxic to the memory part of your brain.”
WORK SMARTER. Rather than working 24?7, take a step back. “Our brain loves down time,” says Dr. Chapman. “Take five minutes, five times a day to let the brain settle down. That promotes deeper level thinking, and you’ll often find that’s when you’ll have your ‘a-ha’ moments. Our brain works for us when we shut down—particularly during sleep. Whatever you were thinking about before you went to sleep, the brain pulls together novel ideas on a whole new plane of thinking. That’s why you sometimes wake up and have a solution to a problem.”
TAKE IN LESS INFORMATION. Learning what to focus on and what to block out—a skill called “strategic attention”—can improve your critical thinking that takes place in the frontal lobe, a key factor in boosting your brain health. “The more we are exposed to, the less we are able to make decisions—we get paralyzed,” she explains. “Smarter people, who are higher level thinkers, figure out what two or three things are the most important and then focus on going deeper on that information, rather than trying to take in an exhaustive amount of information on a subject.”
FOCUS ON THE BIG—AND SMALL— PICTURE . Learn how to use the brain booster of integrative reasoning. “It’s the power of zooming in to get the information and then zooming out to get the broader perspective,” says Dr. Chapman. “Otherwise your brain is presented with a bunch of factoids that the brain can’t remember.”
Dr. Chapman’s overall message is a hopeful one: The brain can change for the better whether it’s healthy, injured, or diseased, and every single person needs to think about brain health, no matter what your age.
“The research we are doing shows that the more you develop your higher thinking, the more you can compress the number of years with dementia,” she says. “Complex thinking does not cure Alzheimer’s but it helps clean out the vascular system of beta-amyloid, the plaque that is so damaging to the brain.”
Top experts agree that you need to think of your brain more like a muscle. “What you do in your life—especially during your midlife—makes a huge difference whether you stay sharp in your 80s,” says Majid Fotuhi, MD, PhD, founder and chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness in Baltimore. Fortuni is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School and author of the new book “Boost Your Brain: The New Art and Science Behind Enhanced Brain Performance.” In his book, Dr. Fotuhi lays out new findings about preventing the brain drain of age by focusing on all dimensions of brain health—exercise, diet, social well-being, and mental engagement.
In a study conducted at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago that recently appeared in Neurology, 294 people over the age of 55 were given yearly tests that measured memory and thinking. When their brains were examined for the markers of dementia, like brain lesions and plaque, those who kept the brain stimulated by reading books, writing letters, and other activities linked to mental stimulation slowed cognitive decline by 15 percent.
“You can grow your brain, especially the memory part of your brain, in a matter of three to six months,” says Dr. Fotuhi, who tested female patients with concerns about Alzheimer’s or memory deficits and whose own cognitive issues ranged from mild to major. The women visited his center three times a week for a total of six hours, for 12 weeks. They worked on stress reduction, meditation, exercise, diet, and counseling. They also had cognitive stimulation to improve memory skills, starting with learning a list of 20 random things and working up to 100. Afterwards 96 percent demonstrated dramatic improvement in memory.
“In the beginning,” Dr. Fotuhi explains, “people make excuses, ‘I can’t remember names.’ But I encourage them to be positive and change their attitude. We act like a trainer and have high expectations and push every week. Exercise, keep your brain active, meditate, and take DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid. Those four interventions can produce dramatic success.”
A popular online site that provides more than 40 brain exercises designed by neuroscience researchers is Lumosity.com. Researchers found users show improvement in problem solving, attention, memory, speed, and flexibility. “We have 38 ongoing research collaborations going on all over the world to figure out what effects the training has on the brain,” says Joe Hardy, Vice President of Research and Development for the company.
Get Moving to Fire Up Your Neurons
Your weight and physical fitness are directly tied to your brain’s fitness. “Obese people have 4 percent shrinkage of the brain compared to people of normal weight,” offered Dr. Fotuhi. Leading a sedentary lifestyle puts you at risk for developing prediabetes and diabetes, which doubles or triples your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Mark Herceg, Director of Rehabilitation Psychology and Neuropsychology at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in New York and assistant professor of Psychology in Clinical Neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College, says that physical exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain. “It increases blood flow to the brain,” says Herceg. “Increasing oxygen delivers enriching nutrients and helps brain tissue stay healthy and active. Exercise can demonstrably increase the size of your hippocampus, which consolidates new information and stores it in long-term memory.”
Limit Stress and Deal with Depression
Other enemies to your brain’s health are stress, anxiety, and depression. All produce cortisol, which causes the brain to shrink. “Studies have shown that people who meditate, pray, practice yoga, or do tai chi for three months experience an expansion of the memory part of the brain,” says Dr. Fotuhi. “All calm your mind.” The doctor personally practices what he calls the ABCs of destressing. First, think of what action is stressing you. Then try to shift or change your belief about what’s going on and you can change the consequence. It’s about changing your expectation and being more realistic.
Take Even “Mild” Head Injuries Seriously
New research is showing that even “slight” concussions can have repercussions, and each year more than 1.7 million traumatic brain injuries occur in the US. So if you played sports in your youth (women soccer players have one of the top incidences of head injuries), have been in an accident where you hit your head, experienced domestic violence, or anything of the sort, your brain health has likely been compromised.
Feeding Your Brain
Neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, medical director of the Perlmutter Health Center and president of the Perlmutter Brain Foundation in Naples, Florida, says that simple carbohydrates from grains and sugar are destroying our brains. “It’s almost sacrilegious to say that even whole grains and fruits can cause dementia, but that’s the reality,” says Perlmutter. “We are the only country in the world where the Department of Agriculture is setting our nutritional guidelines and telling farmers what to grow.” Perlmutter new book, Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar— Your Brain’s Silent Killers, explains. “How could I be bashing fruit and bread? They are the cornerstones of our modern maladies. Good fat is a super fuel, an antioxidant that powers our cells and relieves inflammation. The diet I propose is very different from the government’s recommendations.” Dr. Perlmutter adds that when consumed moderately, fruit has nutritional value, and recommends consuming one piece of fruit or one handful of berries each day.
The doctor points out that how your body handles blood sugar is the most powerful predictor of your risk for Alzheimer’s. “Anything high glycemic needs to be avoided,” he says. “Whole grain bread is higher on the glycemic index than a Snicker’s bar (71 vs. 42). A 12-ounce glass of concentrated orange juice has 36 grams of sugar (nine teaspoons)—about the same as a glass of Coca-Cola. High glycemic foods cause inflammation, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are both inflammatory conditions. If we can keep people from becoming diabetic, we can cut these numbers in half.”
Dr. Perlmutter claims that Alzheimer’s, though it has no treatment, may be completely preventable. He recommends using turmeric, a powerful activator of antioxidants. “India, where turmeric is used generously in cooking, has less than one-fourth the incidence of Alzheimer’s that we do,” he says, noting that what is spent on Alzheimer’s annually is double the cost of coronary disease and triple what is spent on cancer. His father, a retired surgeon, has the disease, and he sees him every day, so he understands the emotional toll the disease takes.
A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Jon Lieff, MD, a practicing neuropsychiatrist specializing in the interface of psychiatry, neurology, and medicine and a pioneer in geriatric psychiatry, agrees that diet plays a critical role. “If you eat a lot of red meat, your body chemistry has certain microbes that make a substance that causes plaque and is associated with brain disease,” says Dr. Lieff, who practices in Newton, Massachusetts. “People who eat a vegetarian diet do not have those same microbes, so they don’t show those levels of inflammation.”
Dr. Fotuhi pushes DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid) for the brain. “People with higher levels of DHA are less likely to get dementia and their brain is bigger,” he says. “We’ve learned that our BDNF [brain-derived neurotrophic factor], a critical protein created by neurons, is even more important than we thought. It is a kind of fertilizer for the brain, and the right diet helps increase levels of BDNF.” He recommends 1,000 milligrams of DHA a day and twice that for anyone who has suffered a brain injury.
Pharmacist, homeopath, and co-founder of the Organic Pharmacy, Margo Marrone, who has offices in London and Los Angeles, sees many patients who are deficient in magnesium, which she claims leads to anxiety and depression due to poor sleep. “A lot of people don’t associate magnesium with brain function, but magnesium and calcium facilitate the electrical signals in the brain,” she says. “Flax and fish oils also help increase the levels of serotonin and reduce inflammation all over the body.”
When it comes to herbs, she recommends gotu kola, which may improve circulation to the brain. “It’s a bit like taking aspirin without the side effects,” says Marrone.