Keep Your Brain Sharp
7. Log 40 Minutes of Hard Cardio A Week
As we exercise, neurons from key brain areas, the hippocampus and cortex, secrete a memory-making hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that helps increase the number of neurons we have and makes their synapses run more efficiently. It’s an evolutionary gift—or curse—from the days when humans ran to hunt or to avoid being eaten themselves, says Howard Fillet, M.D., chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, adding, “If a lion starts chasing you from behind a tree and you escape, you’ll want to remember that event for the rest of your life.”
The harder and longer you work, the more BDNF flows into your bloodstream. A recent study points to a guaranteed BDNF bump from 40 vigorous minutes of cardio versus a more modest rise for 20 minutes at a moderate rate, says Matthew Schmolesky, Ph.D., who put humans through their paces at Weber State University in Utah to test BDNF levels.
8. Eat More Fat, Certain Veggies, and (Sometimes) Less Food
Dark, fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines are high in Docosahexaenoic omega-3 polyunsaturated acid, or DHA, a neural building block. (In the landmark Framingham Heart Study, those who had the highest DHA blood levels almost halved their risk of developing dementia.) Aim to get two or three servings per week.
Fruits and vegetables high in vitamins C and E, such as tomatoes, butternut squash, bell peppers, and Brussels sprouts, may also protect brain health. The recommended daily allowance of vitamin E for men is 15 grams per day, which you can achieve with two ounces of almonds. You’ll want at least 90 milligrams a day of vitamin C, about what’s in a large orange or sweet pepper.
Also good for brain health: Don’t eat at all. Similar to exercise, fasting increases proteins called neurotrophics—including BDNF—that help new brain synapses to form. Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the National Institute on Aging, says, “Fasting is a challenge to your brain, and nerve cells adapt in ways that enhance their function,” he says. Human trials are just getting underway, but Mattson already follows a version of what’s called 5:2 fasting. Its rules are simple: For two days a week, eat one meal of about 500 calories; eat well the other five days.
9. Break From Your Routine
Our brains demand challenge to thrive. Working on new tasks and exploring new hobbies, places, and relationships helps build what’s called a “cognitive reserve” of neural pathways. As you use neurons, or nerve cells, in different parts of your brain to accomplish something, you create or strengthen synapses linking them. If one brain road slows due to age or disease, alternate connectors can power actions. This strong neural safety web is likely why people with higher levels of educational or career attainment tend to have healthier brains over time, as do those who spend down time doing something mentally stimulating—writing, coaching, playing in a band—versus mind-numbing activities, like watching TV. The basic idea: Do new things, but also ones that make you feel good.
10. Test A New Language
That doesn’t mean you have to master French. Even learning basic words and phrases is proven to yield huge mental dividends. “You don’t have to be young, you don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to be a genius,” says Thomas Dak, a specialist in language and cognition at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. He studied people first tested for intelligence in 1947. Those who had learned another language after age 18 were still ahead of peers at age 73 in reading and verbal fluency.
11. Consider Six Hours of Sleep Your Brink
Skimp on sleep regularly, and working memory and especially attention take a hit. How much sleep do you need for peak performance? Individual needs vary, but there is a baseline. A recent University of Oregon study of more than 30,000 people in mid-life from six different countries showed that those who slept fewer than six hours per night did worse recalling lists of words and numbers.
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