Prevention & Recovery

6 easy ways to keep your brain healthy and active

By: Julie Beun

© Author: Canadian Living Credits: ©

Prevention & Recovery

6 easy ways to keep your brain healthy and active

By: Julie Beun
"Babe, check this out."

I sigh and turn around in the home office I share with my partner, Joe. Normally, "check this out" means "watch this hilarious cat video on YouTube." But not today. On his computer screen, there's a bunch of slick-looking graphs he's put together.

"See this?" he says happily. "This colour represents the times we've gone out for dinner with friends. The blue is you and a friend. The red is family dinners." I stare at him – hard. "Dude, aren't you supposed to be working?"

"Yeah, but wait. I've also done a statistical analysis. See? Plus, I can Venn diagram it just by...."

Puzzles and patterns

You guessed it: Joe is a math geek. As a data analyst, he looks at sudoku puzzles and sees patterns. I tried to do one after reading that they help age-proof your brain, but ended up drawing frowny faces in all the boxes. I'm not dumb; I just hate numbers.

So does that mean I'm at a greater risk of dementia, Alzheimer's or age-related cognitive decline than he is? Not really, explains Dr. Daniel Amen, clinical neuroscientist, psychiatrist and author of Use Your Brain to Change Your Age: Secrets to Look, Feel, and Think Younger Everyday (Crown, 2012).

Increasing brain capacity

"Throughout our lives, we're either increasing or decreasing our brain capacities. You lose 85,000 neurons a day. But you're creating new neurons as well, so it's a balance between how many you make and how many you lose – and what you do to keep the balance in your favour," says Amen.

It turns out I'm already age-proofing. Sure, I need a calculator for math problems, but I'm a wizard at hidden-word puzzles and can spell circles around Joe. I exercise five times a week, read voraciously and, thanks to my job, meet fascinating people all the time.

Page 1 of 4 -- Learn three ways to keep your brain healthy on page 2
So sudoku haters of the world can celebrate: While math is important, it's not the only way to anti-age your brain. Everything – what you eat, how much you sleep, who you hang out with, how much you exercise – has a profound impact on keeping your grey matter healthy.

1. I only break a sweat for shoe sales.
No time, no energy, no interest – whatever the reason, 48 percent of Canadians ages 12 and older aren't active in their leisure time, says Statistics Canada. Researchers at the University of British Columbia recently conducted a study of women and exercise.

They found that exercise improved a variety of cognitive functions, including memory, problem-solving and attention. A Columbia University Medical Centre trial found that exercise stimulates the birth of twice as many neurons in the part of your brain that governs memory as a state of rest does. You don't even have to break a sweat. Strap on your headphones, plug in some classical music and go for a walk.

Not only does music stimulate the brain, but a 2006 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study also found those who walk for an hour three times a week have more brain volume and better right-left brain connections than those who don't.

2. I can't sleep.
You may spend 7.5 hours in bed, but a 2006 study of middle-aged volunteers at the University of Chicago found that many women only sleep 6.7 hours, while men sleep 6.1 hours. And that's not enough time. Sleep helps you manage stress, says Amen. Practise good sleep hygiene: Go to bed at least seven hours before your wake-up time and avoid computers, TV and alcohol before bed.

3. Who needs to grapple with numbers?
I have Joe. Don't like messing with numbers in sudoku or deciphering clues in a crossword? Never mind. The trick to exercising your brain isn't about getting the numbers or letters right. It's about the exercise itself. "If you're not good at something, then doing basic things in that area can help your brain," says Amen.

Focusing only on your strengths is "like going to the gym and doing right biceps curls and then leaving," he says. "You need to get a complete workout." So, if you're good at math and crosswords, try activities that require hand-eye coordination, such as dancing, racket sports and piano lessons.

Page 2 of 4 -- Check out three more ways to keep your mind active on page 3
4. Well, maybe I'll have just one more teensy glass of wine.
It's just red wine, you tell yourself. They say it's healthy. Well, it is – sort of. Resveratrol (say that five times fast), a powerful antioxidant in red wine, was found to slow age-related decline in mice in a 2008 study by the National Institute on Aging.

Does that mean that mice and men should all imbibe? "If you have a glass or two a week, that's fine," says Amen. But that alcohol is toxic to brain cells. Want another option? Resveratrol is also found in peanuts, or can be taken as a supplement.  

5. I know i should eat better, but i'm a bad cook and at a loss when I'm grocery shopping.
Food is life – particularly for your brain, says Michelle Schoffro Cook, a naturopath in British Columbia and author of The Brain Wash: A Powerful All-Natural Program to Protect Your Brain Against Alzheimer's, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Depression, Parkinson's, and Other Diseases (Wiley, 2007).

"The brain always needs to replenish itself," she says, "and if you provide inferior nutrition it will be prone to inflammation and brain disease." Try to keep snack-size portions of brain-building foods such as almonds, blueberries, prunes, cherries and red grapes handy.

And when you do cook, try a dish such as cold-water fish spiced with turmeric. Fish's omega-3 fatty acids support brain function, while the curcuminoids in turmeric interrupt the gene responsible for the buildup of the insoluble plaques that cause Alzheimer's.

6. Do I look like a people person to you?

Maybe not, but it's good for your brain when you reach out and connect with someone socially. Why? "Neuroscience says that meeting and greeting new people is hard, so it's good for your brain," says Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind (Viking, 2010).

"You have to be nice or not nice, and watch your body language, your words and so on. You're really kept on your toes." Even if you're a wallflower, you can build a better brain by volunteering. Getting involved as a volunteer puts you in situations where you have to socialize and connect. And what's better than doing so over a cause that you believe in?

Page 3 of 4 -- Learn about Alzheimer's and tips for keeping your brain safe, plus try out our "Brainy Quiz" to find out if your lifestyle is healthy or not on page 4

There's Alzheimer's in my family
Five to seven percent of Canadians with Alzheimer's have familial Alzheimer's disease. "It doesn't mean you give up; it means you get more aggressive," says Dr. Daniel Amen, a clinical neuroscientist and psychiatrist.

Address risk factors, such as hypertension, obesity, sleep apnea and poor diet, and have regular memory tests. "Alzheimer's starts 30 to 50 years before you have symptoms," Amen says. "If you have a family history, you have to be more serious about protecting your brain."

The Brain-Smart House

Try these tips for protecting your brain on the home front.

• Try a smoking-cessation program, or at least smoke outside your home. "Smoking constricts blood flow to the brain," says Dr. Daniel Amen, a clinical neuroscientist and psychiatrist.
• Choose all-natural soaps, deodorants, shampoos and cosmetics.
• Use organic cleaning products or follow the example of some green-savvy folks and make your own. For a bathroom cleaner, mix 1-2/3 cups baking soda, 1/2 cup liquid glycerin, 1/2 cup water and 3 tbsp vinegar. For an all-purpose cleaner, try 1 tsp borax mixed with 1/2 tsp baking soda, 2 tbsp lemon juice or lavender oil, and 1 cup hot water.

Brainy quiz
Answer yes or no for each question to determine if you have a brain-benefitting lifestyle.

1. Do you exercise regularly, even if it's just a postdinner stroll?
2. Do you eat whole rather than processed foods?
3. Do you get at least seven hours of sleep?
4. Do you regularly read, or do crosswords or other mind puzzles for pleasure?
5. Do you socialize often?
6. Are you a nonsmoker?
7. Do you limit your daily alcohol consumption to one drink?
8. Do you avoid using harmful cleaning chemicals (e.g., bleach and ammonia)?
9. Do you engage in a fun hobby or pastime daily?
10. Do you continuously try to learn new skills or information?

If you answered yes to most or all of the questions, well done. You're on your way to having a smarter, younger brain.

If you answered no to some or most of these questions, it's time to embrace some of the health strategies mentioned here.

This story was originally titled "A Beautiful Mind" in the September 2012 issue.

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Prevention & Recovery

6 easy ways to keep your brain healthy and active