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Monday, 15 December 2014

Brainpower: Sharpen Your Mind

Brainpower: Sharpen Your Mind

Of all the things you've got on your mind — work, bills, that weird, new stain on the kitchen floor — your mind probably isn't one of them. But now that you've started blanking on your own cell phone number and freezing when the ATM asks for your PIN, maybe it's time to start thinking about it. See, your brain tissue is steadily being chipped away — some of it by the natural aging process and some of it by such brain shrinkers as stress and cigarettes. Luckily, there are ways to strengthen your brainpower the way you build your abs. All it takes is a quick seven-step diet and exercise plan designed to boost your memory, attention span, and all the other things that will restore your skull-covered hard drive to its maximum power.

Brain Booster 1: Your Heart

The reason you misplace keys or can't remember what you ate 9 minutes ago? Normal aging shrinks neurons (brain cells) and drains neurotransmitters (the messengers that communicate between and among cells). But getting your heart rate up can reverse this process by increasing blood flow to the brain to improve memory and overall brain function, says Arthur Kramer, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Illinois. "We examined brain structure before and after fitness training and we found increases of brain volume in a number of areas," says Dr. Kramer, whose patients improved 10 to 15 percent on a variety of memory and attention tasks after exercise. The minimum: You can reap benefits from as little as walking 30 minutes three times a week.

Brain Booster 2: Your Back

Hauling your everyday (80-pound) shoulder bag can leave you tired. Carrying whiny kids can leave you frazzled. And both may injure your back — and your brain — in the process. A recent Northwestern University study found that people who suffered from chronic back pain lost up to 1.5 cubic centimeters (equivalent to 1 teaspoon) of gray matter per year. That's because the area of the brain that copes with the stress of the pain (the lateral prefrontal cortex, for those scoring at home) becomes depleted and dysfunctional enough to affect emotional decision-making, says A. Vania Apkarian, Ph.D., whose previous work found that patients with chronic back pain were slower decision-makers. Best way to beat back pain: build muscle in your lower back and abdominals to support the spine. Try the reverse trunk curl. Lie flat on your stomach and fold your hands under your chin. Lift your chin and chest off the floor about 3 to 6 inches. Aim for three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions three times a week.

Brain Booster 3: Your Waist

A body mass index below 25 not only means you'll look great in a bikini but that you'll be more likely to remember that you do. A recent Swedish study found that women who had a BMI of 27 (25-30 is considered overweight) were more likely to experience loss of brain tissue in the temporal lobe (that's your brain's main hub for memory function and one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer's). That's because extra fat generates more chemicals that can be toxic to your brain, says Deborah Gustafson, Ph.D., the lead study author and assistant professor at the Institute of Clinical Neuroscience in Sweden. One class of these chemicals — called free radicals — latches on to cells, disrupts the way they function, and can kill them. Aging naturally chews away at your memory, but excess fat may speed up the process. For each point your BMI increases, your risk increases 12 to 16 percent. "If you decrease your body weight, you're going to slow potential atrophy," says Dr. Gustafson, who recommends a BMI below 25.