Sure, you blank on a name now and then, and sometimes you can't remember where you put your keys. But that doesn't mean your steel-trap mind is doomed to turn into a colander as you get older. "You can build up your brain, just like a muscle," says Stephen Kritchevsky, Ph.D, director of the Sticht Center on Aging at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. Researchers haven't yet found a way to prevent Alzheimer's disease, but they have uncovered plenty of defenses against the mental missteps we all experience. Just a few simple tweaks, such as ordering the fish special at a restaurant or tidying up your house, can yield big results. Read on for new strategies that can keep your brain nimble, your memory sharp, and your keys always where you left them.
Test your hearing
If you're one of the 31 million Americans with hearing problems, your memory may be suffering, too. Research from Brandeis University shows that people with hearing loss sometimes spend so much effort trying to understand what's being said that they can't remember it afterward.
Have your hearing tested every 3 years after age 50.
Prevent further hearing loss by turning down the volume. If you have an MP3 player, make sure you set it no higher than 80 percent of the maximum, says Brian Fligor, ScD, director of diagnostic audiology at Children's Hospital Boston.
Keep your BMI below 25
In memory tests, people with a healthy BMI of 20 recalled an average of 9 out of 16 words, while those with a BMI of 30 — the threshold for obesity — remembered just 7, found a study in Neurology. That difference sounds small, but researchers say it can be enough to have a noticeable impact.
Visit prevention.com/bmicalculator. If your number is over 25, aim to lose 5 percent to 7 percent of your body weight (try cutting 250 calories a day from your diet and burning 250 calories through exercise).
Eat salad every day
In a study from Rush University, people who consumed about three servings of vegetables daily had a 40 percent slower rate of cognitive decline over 6 years than those who shunned veggies, leaving the produce lovers the mental equals of someone 5 years younger. Green leafy vegetables seemed to have the strongest effect, perhaps because of their high vitamin E content, say researchers.
Add vitamin E–rich spinach, almonds, or sunflower seeds to the mix for a smarter salad.
Pay (better) attention
As you get older, you become less efficient at sifting through different types of sensory information — so much so that a distracting environment can interfere with memories forming in your brain. But a recent study suggested a fix: Participants were asked to pick out certain letters among a jumble of them while ignoring superfluous sounds. Those who first completed an attention-training course in noisy rooms had significantly higher scores.
Turn on the television or radio and hone your focus with a word game or Sudoku puzzle, or go to prevention.com/brainfitness to find fun mind-boosting games.
A Norwegian study found that older people who eat any type of fish at least once a week do appreciably better on mental tests than those who skip seafood. The jury is still out on whether it's omega-3 fatty acids or another fish component that actually has the most brain-friendly oomph, says study author A. David Smith, PhD, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Oxford.
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Eat two fish dishes weekly. If you're not a seafood fan, experiment with mild (and low-mercury) varieties such as tilapia, scallops, or shrimp.
Check your blood sugar
Women with chronically elevated blood sugar have a greater risk of mild cognitive impairment or dementia — even if they're not diabetic, studies suggest. Perpetually high blood sugar may cause brain or blood vessel damage, says Elizabeth Barrett-Connor, MD, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine.
Have your blood sugar checked once a year: According to the American Diabetic Association, your fasting level should be under 100 mg/dl.
Take a 30-minute walk. Muscles must burn glucose for fuel, which stabilizes blood sugar levels.
Eat four to six small meals a day; this also keeps your blood sugar on an even keel.
Make like a boy scout
People who are conscientious — self-disciplined and dependable — show less cognitive decline and fewer Alzheimer's disease symptoms, research has found. Good news: You can cultivate conscientiousness, says Robert S. Wilson, PhD, the study's lead author and professor of neurological and behavioral sciences at Rush University Medical Center.
Spend 20 minutes a day tidying the house to nurture this trait, suggests Brent Roberts, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Eat for lower blood pressure
A 2007 Columbia University study showed that people with hypertension were 40 percent more likely to develop cognitive impairment than those whose blood pressure is in the healthy range. "The brain naturally shrinks with age, but hypertension can speed the process," Kritchevsky says.
Consume at least three servings of calcium-rich foods daily. Doing so slashes your risk of developing hypertension, research has found.
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