By: Sasha Klemawesch, MD
A few years ago, I wrote about a potential vaccine for Alzheimers. We are still a while away from having one on the market, especially since the initial trials had to be aborted due to brain swelling and other unwanted side effects. (Don’t lose hope though, a new formulation is in development and undergoing clinical validation studies.)
But in the meantime, there are many non-pharmacologic things you can do to keep your brain healthy.
When asked, “What’s the best thing to do to keep your mind sharp and ward off dementia?” Most people (myself included) would answer “crosswords” or some other sort of brain teaser. Turns out…. Yes … and/but … No.
In his new book, “Keep Sharp”, Dr Sanjay Gupta discusses strategies for preserving brain function, and he talks about the myth of the crossword puzzle. If you are someone who does crosswords, or sudoku’s, or some other form of mental exercise every day, you might not be getting as much benefit from them as you had hoped. Over time it becomes a ‘practice-makes-perfect’ phenomenon, where your brain learns how to perform the task and therefore it is no longer a struggle to complete it. The key to enhancing cognitive function (at any age) is to challenge the brain. You want to create new neural connections and force it to forge new pathways. By doing so you literally and figuratively grow your brain size. But the only way to form new neuronal paths is to engage in new activities.
If you love crosswords, by all means, keep doing them. But add in different sorts of puzzles, like cryptograms or kakuros. Even better, do something physically stimulating rather than just mentally so. Physical activity is one of THE most important aspects of maintaining a healthy brain. And despite the name of this article, you do not have to start dead-lifting 300 lbs. or running triathlons. A little exercise goes a long way.
If you spend a good deal of the day watching TV, simply standing at each commercial – yes, just standing up – will have enormous benefits. Better yet, stand and do squats. If you are more a book reader, get up at the end of each
chapter and walk around the kitchen island 10 times or march in place for 1 minute. It might sound inconsequential, but those little things will add up. Even better than doing a few minutes here and there inside your house would be to get outside in the fresh air for a walk. And if you can do it with a friend, all the better. Dr Gupta calls that a “brain trifecta.” By (1) moving, (2) socializing and (3) destressing, you “measurably detoxify” your brain, and the spontaneity inherent to friendly conversations means your brain can’t anticipate what will come up during the interaction, so you end up engaging multiple regions of it. Also, research has shown that there is an inverse proportion between your risk of cognitive decline and the size of your social network.
Finally, don’t waste your time on supplements. There is no magic pill that can prevent cognitive decay. Eating a healthy balanced diet with lots of fresh fruits and veggies, while limiting refined sugar and saturated fats will get you the antioxidants and brain food you need.