Saturday, April 22, 2017

10 Ways to Keep Your Mind Sharp

Mental prowess
 We expect the prowess of our joints and lungs to slowly decline as we age, but the thought of our minds doing the same is intolerable. Here are some top prevention tips worth their weight in wits, plus a few to forget.

Do something!
 Scientists are starting to think that regular aerobic exercise may be the single most important thing you can do for the long-term health of your brain. While the heart and lungs respond loudly to a sprint on the treadmill, the brain is quietly getting fitter with each step, too. For mental fitness, aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every other day.

Eat, Eat, Eat
Too much or too little energy throws a kink in the brain’s delicate machinery. A low glycemic diet — high fiber, with moderate amounts of fat and protein — is broken down more slowly in the body than high glycemic foods, such as sweets and white starches. A steady pace of digestion in the gut gives a more reliable flow of energy to the brain, likely optimizing the organ’s long-term health and performance.

Watch that diet 
 While overindulging can make the brain sluggish and lead to long-term detriments to your brain, too few calories can also impair brain function. Extreme dieting can cause some diehards to feel stretches of calm — a feeling that may underlie the addiction of anorexia — but many studies have also linked dieting with distraction, confusion and memory impairment.

Take care of your body 
 Largely preventable diseases — such as Type II diabetes, obesity and hypertension — all affect your brain, too. System-wide health concerns have been linked to an increased risk of cognitive decline and memory impairments. Keeping your circulatory system in working order, by, say, avoiding cigarettes and saturated fat, lessens the onslaught of age-related damage to the brain.

Get your beauty rest 
 When we rest and dream, memories are sifted through, some discarded, others consolidated and saved. When we don't sleep, a recent study found, proteins build up on synapses, possibly making it hard to think and learn new things. Furthermore, chronically sleeping poorly (in contrast to not enough) is linked to cognitive decline in old age, although the relationship may not be causal.

Enjoy your coffee 
 Growing evidence suggests a caffeine habit may protect the brain. According to large longitudinal studies, two to four perk-me-ups a day may stave off normal cognitive decline and decrease the incidence of Alzheimer's by 30 to 60 percent. It is unclear whether the benefits come from caffeine or the antioxidants found in coffee and tea, but that latte may improve cognition this afternoon and several decades from now.

Eat fish
 Some theories credit the introduction of fish into the human diet with the evolution of our tremendous cognitive prowess. Essential fatty acids, such as Omega 3s, are critical to brain function and are proving beneficial for treating such brain-sapping ailments as depression. Studies on the efficacy of Omega 3 supplements, however, have had mixed results, so get doses from food sources, such as flax seeds, fatty fish and grass-fed animals.

Chill out 
 Stress takes a toll on the brain by washing harmful chemicals over the hippocampus and other brain areas involved in memory. Some scientists suspect that living a balanced lifestyle and pursuing relaxing activities such as yoga, socializing and crafting may delay memory impairment by reducing stress.

Skip the supplements 
 Supplements have been getting a bad rap recently, with even the familiar multivitamin now looking like a waste of money — or worse. Brain pills, such as ginkgo and melatonin, likely belong in the trash as well. Despite their "natural" origins, they are not free of potential side effects, such as high blood pressure, digestion trouble, fertility problems and depression. And among healthy individuals, ginkgo offers no brain benefits beyond that of a placebo. (In some cases, the placebo worked better.)

Tease your brain 
 Whether crossword puzzles, sudokus and other brain teasers actually keep your brain in shape, has not been well-established. However, lack of education is a strong predictor of cognitive decline. The more you've tried to learn, the better you'll be at mental sit-ups in old age. The key may be tackling something new; the challenge of the unknown is likely more beneficial than putting together the same jigsaw puzzle over and over again.

Is soda making your brain age faster?

New research suggests that excess sugar—especially the fructose in sugary drinks—might damage your brain.
Researchers using data from the Framingham Heart Study (FHS) found that people who drink sugary beverages frequently are more likely to have poorer memory, smaller overall brain volume, and a significantly smaller hippocampus—an area of the brain important for learning and memory.
But before you chuck your sweet tea and reach for a diet soda, there’s more: a follow-up study found that people who drank diet soda daily were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia when compared to those who did not.
Researchers are quick to point out that these findings, which appear separately in the journals Alzheimer’s & Dementia and Stroke, demonstrate correlation but not cause-and-effect. While researchers caution against over-consuming either diet soda or sugary drinks, more research is needed to determine how—or if—these drinks actually damage the brain, and how much damage may be caused by underlying vascular disease or diabetes.
“These studies are not the be-all and end-all, but it’s strong data and a very strong suggestion,” says Sudha Seshadri, a professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and a faculty member at the university’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “It looks like there is not very much of an upside to having sugary drinks, and substituting the sugar with artificial sweeteners doesn’t seem to help.”
“Maybe good old-fashioned water is something we need to get used to,” adds Seshadri, who is senior author of both papers.
Excess sugar has long been associated with cardiovascular and metabolic diseases like obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, but little is known about its long-term effects on the human brain, says Matthew Pase, a fellow in the university’s neurology department, an investigator at the FHS, and lead author of both papers.
He chose to study sugary drinks as a way of examining overall sugar consumption. “It’s difficult to measure overall sugar intake in the diet,” he says, “so we used sugary beverages as a proxy.”
For the first study, researchers examined data, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and cognitive testing results, from about 4,000 people enrolled in the Framingham Heart Study’s Offspring and Third-Generation cohorts. (These are the children and grandchildren of the original FHS volunteers enrolled in 1948.)
The researchers looked at people who consumed more than two sugary drinks a day of any type—soda, fruit juice, and other soft drinks—or more than three per week of soda alone. Among that “high intake” group, they found multiple signs of accelerated brain aging, including smaller overall brain volume, poorer episodic memory, and a shrunken hippocampus, all risk factors for early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers also found that higher intake of diet soda—at least one per day—was associated with smaller brain volume.
In the second study, the researchers, using data only from the older Offspring cohort, looked specifically at whether participants had suffered a stroke or been diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. After measuring volunteers’ beverage intake at three points over seven years, the researchers then monitored the volunteers for 10 years, looking for evidence of stroke in 2,888 people over age 45, and dementia in 1,484 participants over age 60.
Here they found, surprisingly, no correlation between sugary beverage intake and stroke or dementia. However, they found that people who drank at least one diet soda per day were almost three times as likely to develop stroke and dementia.
Although the researchers took age, smoking, diet quality, and other factors into account, they could not completely control for preexisting conditions like diabetes, which may have developed over the course of the study and is a known risk factor for dementia.
Diabetics, as a group, drink more diet soda on average, as a way to limit their sugar consumption, and some of the correlation between diet soda intake and dementia may be due to diabetes, as well as other vascular risk factors. However, such preexisting conditions cannot wholly explain the new findings.
“It was somewhat surprising that diet soda consumption led to these outcomes,” says Pase, noting that while prior studies have linked diet soda intake to stroke risk, the link with dementia was not previously known. He adds that the studies did not differentiate between types of artificial sweeteners and did not account for other possible sources of artificial sweeteners.
Pase says that scientists have put forth various hypotheses about how artificial sweeteners may cause harm, from transforming gut bacteria to altering the brain’s perception of sweet, but “we need more work to figure out the underlying mechanisms.”

The Speedy Workout That Changes Your Brain


You probably don’t need to read another article extolling the virtues of regular exercise. If you, like the vast majority of people in the U.S., aren’t getting the CDC-recommended 1.5 hours of high-intensity aerobic exercise each week, it’s probably because you don’t have the time, or the energy, or because the other demands of life keep getting in the way — whatever the reason, it’s not because you somehow never realized that getting your heart rate up would be good for your health.
What’s discussed less often, though, is all the ways beyond simple fitness that high-intensity exercise — particularly interval workouts, or short bursts of intense activity — can change you for the better. That means physically, yes, but mentally, too. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that very vigorous exercise can help your brain as much as your body.
In a study published last year in the journal Neuroscience Letters, for example, a group of researchers from the University of Texas investigated the effects of high-intensity exercise on a protein called BDNF, short for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. BDNF is involved in brain-cell survival and repair, mood regulation, and cognitive functions such as learning and memory; low levels of BDNF have been associated with depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. In the study subjects, all healthy young adults, a session of high-intensity exercise was linked to both higher BDNF levels and improvements in cognitive functioning.
In a similar study, published in 2014 in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, a group of middle-aged volunteers ran through a battery of mental tests before and after a high-intensity exercise session — and these subjects, too, saw their cognitive function improve. Notably, there was no such improvement after a session of low-intensity active stretching.
Even the physical benefits of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, go beyond the typical health improvements associated with normal exercise. HIIT may be the closest thing we’ve got to the fountain of youth: In research presented last month in the journal Cell Metabolism, a team of Mayo Clinic researchers suggested that it might help to reverse the cellular signs of aging.
Here’s how it works: As we age, our mitochondria — the “powerhouses” of the cell — stop functioning as well as they used to, leading to declines in energy level and exercise capacity. In the Mayo Clinic study, using groups of younger (18–30) and older (65–80) subjects, researchers measured the impact of three routines — high-intensity interval exercise, strength training, and a combined lower-intensity strength/cardiovascular program — on cell function, cardiovascular fitness, insulin sensitivity, and muscle mass.
At the end of the 12-week study period, the interval trainers showed improvements in circulation, heart function, and lung health. However, while the younger HIIT group experienced a 49 percent increase in mitochondrial capacity — a marker of the cell’s ability to produce energy —high-intensity exercise was the only routine that boosted mitochondrial function in the older group, by an incredible 69 percent. (The older group of high-intensity exercisers also showed an improvement in insulin sensitivity, a marker of diabetes risk.)
The biggest perk of high-intensity exercise, though, may be that it makes the whole workout thing more fun than your average treadmill slog. In part, that’s because it’s easier to get it over with: Earlier this year, a study published in the journal PLOS One found that people enjoyed HIIT workouts over more moderate activity “due to [their] time efficiency and constantly changing stimulus.”
Martin Gibala, a kinesiology professor at McMaster University who’s studied the effects of HIIT on heart health, believes that for many people, a longer, less strenuous workout is less appealing than a shorter blast of greater exertion. But that’s not to say you have to compensate for the lower time commitment by knocking yourself out: “If maximum effort isn’t your thing,” he says, “then you can give 90 percent or 80 percent. Basically, as long as you vary the intensity from steady-state, you’ll get a benefit.”
It’s advice that even the most sedentary of couch potatoes can follow — any exercise that comes with its own acronym can seem a little daunting, but HIIT isn’t just for spandex-clad athletes. The effects of high-intensity interval workouts have been studied in patients with Parkinson’s, coronary artery disease, and diabetes, as well as the elderly. In other words: If you’re reading this, you’re probably healthy enough to give it a shot.