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Boosting Brain Power

by Allegra Tiver

Follow these tips and tricks to stave off mental fog and keep the mind sharp as you age.

Can’t remember where you put the keys? Missed last month’s credit card payment? At a loss for the name of your second cousin at a family get-together?

Don’t worry. You’re not alone in these moments of forgetfulness. But keeping your brain in tip-top shape is something you can work at, whether you’re 18 or 80.

“There are a lot of things we can do to keep our minds sharp, but none of them work as well as all of them combined,” says Dr. Danielle DiGregorio, a geriatric neuropsychologist at the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging (NJISA) at Rowan University.

“Brain health entails a combination of physical and mental activity, social engagement and eating a brain-healthy diet.”

Before diving into specific ways to supercharge your brain, here’s a scientific-yet-simple snapshot of what’s going on inside your head.

Nature of the mind
Every person is born with 100 billion neurons, according to DiGregorio, but not all of them stay with us for our entire life span.

Each neuron is like a tree, with its own root system and sets of branches. When we learn, the branches become more prominent and the roots grow stronger.

“The branches start making connections, and the trees start communicating with each other by talking, by socializing, by experiencing our world,” explains DiGregorio.

This runs somewhat counter to the notion that routines lend to a long and healthy life, but aligns with the concept that variety is the spice of it.

“When we do the same things our whole life, have the same habits, our neurons are not firing out any new messages, so no new branches are being made,” DiGregorio adds.

Action plan
Taking a multi-pronged approach to mental fitness is critical, according to DiGregorio, who works with Dr. Christian White and Nancy M. Alterman, LCSW, on the Memory Assessment Program at NJISA.

DiGregorio conducts paper and pencil, question and answer “road tests” for the brain based on age, education, gender and race to ensure people are compared at the same levels.

No matter which demographic you fall into, boosting your astuteness is based on the life choices you make. That means continually and in a holistic way, not sporadically and in isolation.

Food for thought
A heart-healthy diet is a brain-healthy diet. The same foods doctors recommend to reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes also support brain function.

“Blood is supplied from the heart,” DiGregorio explains. “If you don’t have blood pumping up into the brain, it’s not oxygenated, it’s not happy and it’s not going to be working well.”

Certain “super foods” contain antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that are healthy for your brain and heart, according to registered dietician Maureen Scaramella, of Cooper University Health Care.

Root vegetables, in general, are a powerhouse of nutrients. Scaramella recommends acorn and butternut squash for their beta-carotene, vitamin C, manganese and starches (polysaccharides) that contain key anti-inflammatory benefits for cardiovascular health.

You can also take advantage of “peak citrus season” in the cooler months, Scaramella explains, and enjoy grapefruit, oranges and tangerines, all of which have been found to help reduce stroke risk. And apples really may keep the doctor away, Scaramella notes, since they can reduce the risk of both stroke and heart disease. Get in motion

Just as people experience some physical slow-down over time, the brain inevitably loses capacity with age. But you are more susceptible to mental slips if you let the physical slide.

“Exercise is the No. 1 preventive factor in staving off memory loss,” DiGregorio stresses, since it gets your heart pumping oxygen-rich blood throughout the body and to the brain.

Whether you are oriented toward sports, enjoy machines at the gym, or take pleasure in stretching your muscles on the mat, getting in motion keeps brain fog at bay. And even if you don’t think traditional workouts are for you, there are plenty of other ways to get into motion that can produce the same benefits. Just think of the listening and concentration entailed in moving to the rhythm of music.

“Learning to dance requires you watch through your eyes and register it in your brain, then let it flow out through your feet, hands and body,” says Meredith Ziemba, executive director of Jazz Unlimited in Marlton.

Feeling stressed certainly isn’t a comfortable sensation. But what you may not know is what stress is actually doing to the chemical make-up of your brain and how it impacts the functioning of your central processor.

“Constant stress produces too much cortisol, which is toxic to the brain,” DiGregorio says. “The hormone is found to be high in people with mood disorders that involve high levels of anxiety, or people under stress over long periods of time. They are at greater risk to develop any dementia.”

Learning to calm yourself is important, but no one said it was going to be easy. Only you can investigate and discover what works for you. Then you must commit to doing it in order to continually reap the rewards of mental clarity.

“When you decrease your stress, your brain functions better,” DiGregorio says. “My rule of thumb is: Find something you like to do, then engage in it.”

Yoga, a mindful approach to movement and breath, is seeing a surge in popularity as people witness the spectrum of benefits, including stress relief.

“When we’re really stressed out, it doesn’t allow the mind to focus, so yoga asana practice is great,” says Rhonda Clarke, owner of Yoga for Living in Cherry Hill. But the focus experienced during physical postures is just one aspect of how yoga works to keep stress low.

Stress is an internal balance, says Clarke, noting a little bit every now and then is good and even necessary. But between cell phones, multi-tasking, television and the busyness of doing things in today’s world, we overtax our systems, Clarke explains, which doesn’t encourage an environment of mental clarity.

“Spending an hour on the mat brings your stress levels down, puts the parasympathetic nervous system in balance and stimulates the relaxation response,” Clarke says. “If you are in push-mode all the time, the sympathetic nervous system is in charge and it kicks out stress hormones.”

Becoming aware of your breath can put you on track to a state of balance and healing, Clarke says, and support the body and mind in functioning properly together.

Choose your brain boost
It doesn’t make any sense to try to read a book, play a game or do an activity to improve cognitive function, and then not enjoy it or, worse, even feel anxiety about it.

“I can recommend doing Sudoku, but if someone has never been good at math, then it will cause more stress,” DiGregorio says.

When it comes to choosing activities, she suggests people can re-create longtime standby hobbies in fresh ways to stimulate our neuron trees.

“If people have been great readers, crossword puzzles might be perfect,” DiGregorio says. “They have a lot of words stored. They access information here and send it there. Then the branches spread out, and the roots firm up.”

Being adventurous and open to experiences is one of the best ways to keep the brain in shape.

“When people see new sights and hear new sounds, the brain is learning,” DiGregorio says. “Whether it’s through traveling or doing something you haven’t been exposed to before, these kinds of experiences generally have a positive and relaxed feeling.”

Exploring cultural activities in your community, such as plays or concerts, falls into this category. Just because you don’t go far, doesn’t mean your spirit of adventure is lacking.

Other techniques that keep the brain on point are steeped in community. From playing cards to volunteering, from taking classes to being involved with religious groups, from calling on friends to scheduling time with family, interacting with people is key to challenging our brains and staying sharp.

“You can’t change genetics,” DiGregorio concludes. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t slow the process of memory loss with a heart-healthy, socially active lifestyle.” u


Cooper University Health Care
One Cooper Plaza
1 (800) 8-COOPER

Jazz Unlimited
201 Route 73 S.
(856) 983-6608

New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging
42 E. Laurel Road
(856) 566-6843

Yoga for Living
1926 Greentree Road
Cherry Hill
(856) 404-7287

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 4, Issue 10 (December, 2013).
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