Of all things we gain with age—wealth, wisdom, children—a sharper mind isn’t one of them. Instead of being a steel trap like it used to be, it’s probably starting to resemble a colander. Life keeps pouring in, but you retain less and less of it.
But researchers are discovering that there are ways to forestall the decline. The secret? Stop taking your gray matter for granted, says P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., chief of biological psychiatry at Duke University’s medical school. “You can add 10 or more years to your brain’s useful life just by paying some attention to it,” he says. Here are 12 everyday tips to boost your brainpower—and then get more health, fitness, and beauty secrets in our new book, Age Erasers for Women!
According to a 2007 Columbia University study, working out at the gym may help you sprout new cells in the dentate gyrus, an area of the brain vital to memory. Researchers measured blood volume in the brains of adults who worked out four times a week for four months and found that all that activity sparks the production of more neurons.
Multitasking is like Kryptonite to gray matter. When you have a crammed to-do list, rather than layer projects, take on one task at a time and change them up every hour. Can't finish something in 60 minutes? Schedule another slot for it later in the day. "Switching from one project to the next will engage different areas of the brain, keeping you mentally alert," says Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Center on Aging and the Semel Institute Memory Research Center and the author of The Longevity Bible.
In a 2006 University of South Florida study, people who drank three or more 4-ounce glasses of fruit or vegetable juice each week were 76 percent less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease than those who drank less. The high levels of polyphenols—antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables—may protect brain cells from the damage that may be caused by the disease, says study author Amy Borenstein, Ph.D. Eight six-ounce glasses of water a day will do you good, too. "Your brain is 80 percent water, and if it's not hydrated, your neurons can't perform properly," says Dr. Amen.
Sprinkle some rosemary on your entrées and side dishes. The carnosic acid found in this spice has been shown to reduce stroke risk in mice by 40 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Neurochemistry. Carnosic acid appears to set off a process that shields brain cells from free-radical damage, which can worsen the effects of a stroke. It can also protect against degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and the general effects of aging. But rosemary is not the only "mind spice" on the shelf: Cinnamon, turmeric, basil, oregano, thyme, and sage can all protect your brain from inflammation, says neurologist Eric Braverman, M.D., a clinical assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College. Shoot for 3 to 7 teaspoons of any combination of these spices each day. "Add a teaspoon of cinnamon to your morning yogurt or coffee," says Dr. Braverman. "Sprinkle basil and oregano on a sandwich, or stir a teaspoon of rosemary into tea. It'll add up."
Parlez-vous français? Non? Then you may find yourself less able to stave off dementia when you're older. In a 2007 study at York University in Toronto, bilingual seniors kept the worst effects of the condition at bay four years longer than those who'd never ventured beyond their native tongue. Learning a second language appears to increase the density of gray matter in the areas of your brain that govern attention and memory, says researcher Ellen Bialystok, Ph.D. During your commute, play some language-instruction CDs, such as the ones from Macmillan's Behind the Wheel series
Inflamed, bloody gums can signify bodywide wellness issues. Not only do unhealthy mouths unleash bacteria into the bloodstream, where the bugs can travel to vital organs, but people with gum disease also have worse mental functioning than those whose gums are healthy, according to a U.K. study of more than 6,500 adults.
Drinking five or more cups of green tea per day can make you 20 percent less likely to experience psychological distress than if you drink less than a cup, according to a new study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.