Remember the days when you didn't have to think twice about where the keys were, or the actor's name in your favorite movie? You never forgot why you walked into a room, or what you needed at the store. Gray matter declines as we age, and this is the tissue in the brain that is rich in nerve cells. Unfortunately this drops with every passing moment, especially as we get older.
Some new research highlights the best ways to preserve your brain and potentially ward off Alzheimer's or other dementia's.
Our Best Bet? -- Exercise
Women who walked at least 1 ½ hours per week scored better on memory tests two years later. They did better than those who walked 40 min per week or less.
Too late to start walking? Not at all! A group of researchers took participants aged 60-80 and assigned them to an exercise regimen - mostly brisk walking - three days per week for 45 minutes per day. The other option was stretching and toning exercises three times a week. After six months, they found increases in the volume of gray matter in the different regions of the brain, especially the hippocampus. This area is key to relational memory, like where you met someone, or where you sourced you information from.
That is the type of memory that goes as we get older.
Better yet, the researchers found that those who were in better shape before the study had larger gray matter to start with, and it continued to increase with their prolonged exercise routine. Even those patients who are at risk for Alzheimer's showed modest improvement when they joined an exercise program for 6 months.
Exercise can decrease your long term risk of disease - diabetes, stroke, hypertension, and coronary heart attack. And in the short term, it can also change the brain's structure and function. There is not a downside to exercise!
Many, many studies have reported less dementia in coffee drinkers. In the most recent one, 1,400 people were observed for 21 years, and those who drank 3-5 cups of coffee per day in middle age had a lower risk of Alzheimer's, or other dementia's, than those who drank more or less than that.
Other European studies found that coffee drinkers showed less of a decline in scores for memory tests, as well as other cognitive tests, as they aged. In mice studies, caffeine cuts off the production of beta-amyloid, which is a protein that aggregates in the brain and leads toward the development of Alzheimer's. Caffeine does this by suppressing the enzymes involved in making beta-amyloid. When the mice received the human equivalent of about 5 cups of coffee, or 500mg, they did better on memory tests, and their hippocampal areas had less protein build-up than the mice who did not receive any caffeine.
People who drink regular coffee also have a lower risk of Parkinson's and either regular or decaf coffee may help prevent diabetes. Keep in mind, Starbucks coffee has twice as much caffeine as a normal cup of Folgers, so you likely need less if you are going out for your brew.
Trim the Waistline
The spare tire around your waist is trouble for a healthy mind. Risks of dementia triples for those in middle age who let their stomachs swell a bit. It's isn't just obesity, it's specifically abdominal weight gain, which collects and deposits around vital organs like the liver. This causes higher insulin levels throughout the body, which eventually can lead to type 2 diabetes and/or dementia, which is so closely linked that researchers are beginning to consider calling it “type 3” diabetes.
If you can avoid getting diabetes, you will be helping your memory and your mind. It is well established that type 2 diabetes increases the risk of cognitive decline.
High blood pressure, especially in middle age, does damage to the brain that shows up later in life. Why? The simple explanation is that it causes “small strokes” as part of cerebrovascular disease inside the brain, which kills brain cells by cutting off their supply of oxygen. This makes nerve cell communication in the brain very difficult.
Another theory is that high blood pressure may weaken the barrier that separates the brain from the rest of the body. It becomes more permeable to proteins that could be toxic to the brain tissue.
Ways to Stay Mentally Healthy
• Exercise 30-60 minutes daily
• Lose (or keep off) excess weight
• Keep blood pressure under control
• Consider drinking more coffee if it doesn't make you jittery
• Stay socially and mentally engaged
• Get enough Vitamin D
• Eat more leafy green vegetables and fish