We’ve all heard the adage “Use it or lose it,” and that couldn’t be more accurate in regards to our cognitive performance, with the first sign of an aging brain being that “tip of the tongue” phenomenon. We’ve come to accept that misplacing our keys, losing our train of thought mid-sentence, or forgetting the name of a familiar face is to be expected at about the same time we start needing reading glasses. Not necessarily so, report neuropsychologists and nutritional researchers. Although the brain can shrink as much as one-half to 1 percent annually in mid-life and memory starts to wane in our 30’s, there are things we can do to stave off this decline:
• Stay lean. To grow a bigger brain, eat less. Being overweight in the prime of life promotes excess inflammation and free radical production — both counterproductive to being mentally sharp. One study conducted by Kaiser Permanente found that people who were obese in their 40’s had a 74 percent increased risk of developing dementia; another study published in the National Academy of Sciences slashed the caloric intake of a group of 100 men and women, aged 50, and found that their verbal memory scores jumped by more than 20 percent after just three months.
• Eat fat. The brain is made up of Omega-3 fats, and most of us, particularly women, are lacking this essential fat in their diet. The fatty acid DHA can be found in fatty cold-water fish like salmon and other marine algae, and if you’re not a fish lover, make sure you take a high-quality Omega-3 supplement daily. Clinical trials have shown that 900 milligrams of an algae-based DHA supplement significantly improves mild memory complaints; however, this supplementation has little impact once dementia has set in. Sooner is better.
• Berries and cherries. Berries are full of memory-boosting nutrients. Here’s how they work. When we talk about getting “rusty” at certain tasks, we may not be far off. Oxidation, the process that causes metal to rust, also damages brain cells. This oxidative stress plays a part in many diseases associated with aging from dementia and Alzheimer’s to Parkinson’s. Research has shown that beneficial chemicals called ellagatannis in berries are also found in the hippocampus, the brain’s memory control center. Oxidation is not the only process associated with diseases of aging; inflammation also plays a big role in memory problems and dementia, and cherries are nature’s own little anti-inflammatory pills.
• Handle the hormonal havoc. Ebbing hormones contribute to the inability to recall words and follow-through on mental tasks. When estrogen and progesterone levels are low, the brain feels it and creates a sense of fog, resulting in additional memory and mental processing frustrations. Although the adrenal glands are intended to kick in at this point, women who are overly stressed and not nourishing themselves develop adrenal fatigue, shutting down another potential relief route. Soy-based nutritional supplements can help reduce brain-fog, and your doctor may also recommend supplements and/or herbs to boost your neurotransmitters.
• Dumbbells for the gray matter. Clogged blood vessels in the brain choke off blood and oxygen, just as they do to the heart. As little as 45 minutes of aerobic exercise per week can stall age-related brain atrophy and even regenerate parts of the brain that have withered. In addition to physical movement, brain exercises actually prompt the brain to form new neuronal networks. Engage regularly in mentally challenging activities such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, quilting, or learning a new language or instrument.
One in five adults over the age of 65 suffer from persistent memory problems severe enough to be noticeable by others. Maintaining a lean physique, supplementing with Omega-3 fatty acids, keeping your hormones balanced as you age, and regularly practicing brain exercises will prevent you from being that one.
• Ahwatukee Foothills resident Dr. Deborah Vogt Purscell is a school psychologist, nutritionist, speaker, and presenter. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.