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Opinion: How to Keep Your Mind Sharp

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The last time we met here on the page, I shared how making nuts a regular part of your diet can help prevent memory decline as you age. I hope you have been enjoying a handful of nuts on most days since then. But like most things in life, there are many more than one answer to the question, “How do you keep your mind sharp?”

Good news for all of us, some really delicious foods go a long way toward protecting memory.  Dark berries, such as blueberries, contain a wonderful set of compounds called anthocyanins, that actually give them their beautiful dark hue.  These anthocyanins are among the plant-based nutrients small enough in structure to pass directly across the blood-brain barrier. Once in the brain (think of how cool your brain will feel when it is blue!), they also protect the memory.  Research has shown that older people who eat plenty of blueberries preserve memory function.

Among vegetables, green leafy veggies have been shown to be especially effective in reducing the cognitive declines of aging.  (I’m starting to imagine a walnut blueberry spinach salad right about now!)

Eating fish twice a week has been shown to help older people at risk of dementia.  Because of their higher omega-3 oil content, I recommend that you choose oily cold-water fish, such as Alaskan salmon, wild herring, sardines, Atlantic mackerel, rainbow trout and canned Albacore tuna.  

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Exercise is very powerful for brain health, perhaps especially exercise with some cognitive complexity attached, such as learning to dance. Mixing up your routines and doing ordinary things in unusual ways is a great way to make sure sets of neurons in the brain don’t get weaker for lack of use, so variety in activities and choices is good.  I sometimes walk up the stairs backward (holding the hand-rail of course), because it challenges me to be very aware of every step, lighting up unusual neural pathways, and keeping my brain flexible. But in general, any habit that moves our bodies regularly is good for the brain.

What about brain games and puzzles?  There are many online sites and mobile apps that are touted to help keep memory sharp.  So far, there is no convincing evidence that these actually help protect memory or stave off dementia.  However, we do know that cognitive stimulation, in the form of learning new skills (such as a language), or regular stimulating conversations such as discussing a book or news article, can be helpful.

Finally, maintaining social connections seems to be very helpful in preventing dementia.  Research has shown that married people are significantly less likely to develop dementia as they age. And even if you are not married, staying connected with other people, volunteering for good purposes with a group of others, is likely to be helpful as well.

How do you make all this practical? Easy!  Find someone you like to spend time with, make a green salad with blueberries, walnuts and grilled salmon, talk about a book or article together over dinner, and then go for a walk!  Maybe I’ll see you out there.

Until next time…

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