There are healthy habits you can start now to shield your brain from the effects of aging.
Staying social could shield your brain from the effects of aging, shows a study from the Harvard School of Public Health. Among a group of 16,638 older adults, the least socially active participants showed twice the rate of memory decline compared with the most gregarious folks.
Mixing and mingling stimulate parts of the brain that control your memory, explains Pittsburgh-based neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum, Ph.D. For a particularly powerful brain boost, Nussbaum suggests working in regular activities that pair socializing with learning. "It's important to interact with others in ways that engage your brain in novel ways," he says, "like taking dance classes or traveling to new places."
People prone to negative emotions and stress may be 40 percent more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment, according to a study in Neurology. Study authors hypothesize that a lifetime of stress could adversely affect an area of the brain responsible for regulating memory.
To stop stress from wreaking havoc on your brain, Nussbaum recommends devoting 30 minutes a day to calming activities, such as reading. Or, at a minimum, aim for 10 to 15 minutes of meditation.
Taking iron supplements could increase brain power for iron-deficient women, according to a 2007 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Results showed that after 16 weeks of treatment for iron deficiency, participants performed five to seven times better on cognitive tasks.
Low iron -- the most common nutritional deficiency in the United States -- typically triggers symptoms such as fatigue and a decrease in work performance. But overloading on iron can lead to organ damage, cautions Martha Clare Morris, director of the Rush Center on Nutrition and Aging, so it's crucial to supplement only under the supervision of a doctor.
Slurping down too many sugary drinks could raise your risk for Alzheimer's disease, according to recent research. After 25 weeks with free access to sugar water, mice displayed memory-retention problems and an increase in brain plaques associated with Alzheimer's development. Researchers aren't sure if the bump in sugar intake caused the increased mental impairment. But past research has indicated that inflammation and insulin resistance (both linked to excess sugar intake) could lead to Alzheimer's. Limit soda and other sugary treats, advises Morris, and feed your brain omega-3-rich fish and antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables, which show promise in protecting the brain from age-related damage.
The magic bullet for good memory? It could be as close as the Times crossword puzzle. Studies have found that keeping your brain active -- by doing word games, playing an instrument, or having engaging conversations, for example -- may help ward off cognitive decline and Alzheimer's disease.
Turmeric does more than add flavor to curry dishes. Curcumin, one of the compounds in this spice, has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Some early research has linked it to a lower risk of cognitive decline. Preliminary animal studies suggest it may help prevent Alzheimer's disease, a condition that's rarer in India, where curry is a staple. Add turmeric to food regularly or mix 1/2 teaspoon with hot water and sip as a tea.
"Your brain will do what you ask of it," says David Rakel, M.D., director of the University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine program. Instead of multitasking, he suggests taking a few minutes each day to focus on one positive thought, such as the word "peace." Doing so, he explains, creates new neurological networks in your brain and helps you feel happy and compassionate more easily. On the flip side, harboring angry thoughts can create networks that make you feel more negative about life, more often.
Getting enough shut-eye doesn't just boost your energy -- it may increase brainpower as well. Research shows that a good night's sleep helps improve memory. In one recent study published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers found that sufficient sleep is also necessary to help retain episodic memory -- your ability to remember times, places, and events. Although sleep needs vary, most of us require about eight hours a night.
White sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates are absorbed quickly as sugar into the bloodstream and can cause a spike in insulin levels. This promotes inflammation, which in turn has been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease. Keep blood sugar stable by choosing slower-burning carbohydrates like whole grains, Rakel says.
Eating a balanced diet is optimal for mind and body. But for brain-boosting in a jar, consider fish oil or other supplements containing DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3s have been shown to improve memory as well as protect against high cholesterol and inflammation. Antioxidant vitamins such as C, E, and beta-carotene help neutralize free radicals and boost the brain's supply of oxygen. B vitamins, namely B6, B12, and folic acid, help red blood cells oxygenate the body (and the brain); they may also protect against homocysteine, an amino acid that damages nerve cells. Finally, studies suggest that some herbs -- remember ginseng root and ginkgo biloba? -- have cognition-enhancing effects.