According to a survey conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute, “losing mental function” is the number one fear shared by adults who were asked for their concerns connected to aging. “We fear the loss of mental function because of the burden it places on our families,” says neuroscience researcher Mark Underwood.
Underwood says most adults can make changes in their daily lives that will improve their level of brain fitness. Examples:
Skip the chips. Eating too much fat and cholesterol seems to hasten the onset of Alzheimer’s, at least in a recent mice study; in human studies, being obese in midlife raises the risk of later memory problems, dementia and Alzheimer’s. The flip side: A 2006 study of more than 3,700 older adults found that those who ate plenty of vegetables slowed the decline of their mental abilities by 40 percent, compared with those who skimped on their greens.
Get some sun. A study of nearly 2,000 people last year suggests that vitamin D—the “sunshine vitamin”—could help keep your brain sharp. Among volunteers 65 years and older, those with the lowest levels of the vitamin were more than twice as likely to have cognitive impairment as those whose levels were optimal. Your skin makes vitamin D when it’s exposed to sunlight, but because the process gets less efficient with age, some researchers also recommend supplements; talk to your doctor.
Lower brain calcium levels with supplements. Proper levels of calcium within the neurons are required for optimum brain function. As we reach middle age, brain calcium levels begin to rise because our bodies stop producing a protein responsible for regulating calcium concentration within the cells.
Exercise your brain. Two recent studies found that people who had spent more years in school or had worked in mentally demanding jobs stayed sharper, even when their brains were damaged by the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease. Lifelong hobbies such as playing cards or doing crossword puzzles might also help protect against the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Try a couple of our favorite mind-sharpening games, Word Power and Ken Ken.
Make time for friends. A little chatting can have a big payoff: A Harvard study last year found that socially connected people kept more of their memory intact as they aged—up to twice as much, according to one measure.
Keep moving. In a study of middle-aged and elderly adults with mild memory problems, those who started walking several times each week scored significantly higher on memory tests after just six months.
(Mark Underwood is a neuroscience researcher and co-founder and president of Quincy Bioscience in Madison, Wis. He is responsible for researching the “calcium binding protein” found in jellyfish and developing it for use as a calcium regulator in the human nervous system.)