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Published on: September 13, 2013
by Marika Sboros for BD Live:
IF YOU loved your marbles as a child, you’ll be happy to know you don’t have to lose yours as an adult. More research proves that losing your memory is not a normal part of ageing, and there is a long list of things you can do to protect your grey matter from the passing of the years.
Top of my list are: eating less and learning more, especially a new language.
The latest US research on eating for optimum brain function means I no longer feel a need to punt calorie restriction, never mind practise it. I’ve never been much of a fan of it anyway. It always seemed like a euphemism for voluntary starvation — and a faintly ridiculous thing to do in this day and age of plenty, with all the delicious, healthy foods around the place.
Calorie restriction has evolutionary roots — experts say it was a survival mechanism that allowed primitive people to survive on scraps when food was scarce, and still be able to reproduce. In modern times, it has become a fad, bordering on obsession in longevity circles.
Thankfully, it has been overtaken by research showing that any health benefits are likely to be offset by significant health risks, including damage to the immune system, slower healing and an increased risk of disease.
In the most recent study, on rhesus monkeys (close human cousins) and published in the journal Nature, researchers at the US National Institute on Ageing showed that monkeys fed drastically reduced calories on a daily basis did not live any longer or healthier lives than those who ate normally.
Intermittent fasting better for your brain
That doesn’t mean eating less has lost scientific favour altogether. Researchers say “intermittent fasting” — on consecutive or alternate days — is better for your brain. It is shown to be helpful in diabetes, cardiovascular disease, for weight control and for protection against disease, including dementia diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
It has fans in medical circles across the globe, among them Sandrine Thuret, a UK neuroscientist at Kings College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, and a few of her laboratory colleagues. Dr Thuret was quoted in the Observer newspaper on September 8 saying she eats only “every other day” to keep her brain young. She does not abstain from food altogether on her fasting days. She will usually just “grab a big latte”, and later may have an apple and a cereal bar. On other days, she eats perfectly “normally”.
If intermittent fasting sounds a little too much like voluntary starvation under another guise, there are slightly easier ways to do it. UK nutrition guru Patrick Holford has recommended “modified intermittent fasting” — two days a week on 600 kilocalories a day with two nutrition-dense shakes. To make it even easier, Holford says adding forms of “super fibre” — such as glucomannan (from konjac fibre) — in the shakes, helps to make you feel full for longer and effectively ease any hunger pangs.
Once you’ve established a good balance between eating and not eating for your brain, it’s time to move on to exercise to keep your grey matter fit. Neurologists like to say the brain is a muscle, and that the old saying about use it or lose it really does apply.
Training your brain
The Dana Foundation, a private US philanthropic organisation that supports brain, immuno-imaging and clinical neuroscience research, says brain fitness is not only the absence of disease, either Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia; it is “a state of mind in which (you) are performing well cognitively and emotionally, throughout (your) working years and beyond”.
You don’t have to be a rocket neuroscientist to work out that mental stimulation is the key to keeping the brain fit. Continuing research into prevention strategies for dementia points to the benefits of common activities, such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku (number puzzles) and brain teasers.
Even more effective though, are activities that actively involve learning something new, preferably something that isn’t exactly a breeze — such as learning to play a musical instrument or speak a new language.
Studies show that every time you learn something new, no matter your age, changes occur in your brain. When those changes are positive, it helps to build up a “cognitive reserve” that can protect your brain from cognitive decline. It’s all thanks to your brain’s “plasticity” or “neuroplasticity” — a concept neuroscientists use to describe how new experiences reorganise new neural pathways in the brain, causing long-lasting functional changes.
Language learning, in particular, is shown to contribute to cognitive reserve. Although most of the research has focused on people who have been bilingual or multilingual from childhood, scientists say it makes sense that learning a new language at any age will work the brain by making it move backwards and forwards, from one language to the other.
Research also shows that foreign language learning is “much more a cognitive problem-solving activity than a linguistic activity, overall”.
If you don’t fancy language learning, or playing a musical instrument, new research by US scientists at the vat the University of Texas Centre for Brain Health, published online in Cerebral Cortex, shows that just 12 hours of directed “brain-based” learning strategies led to positive brain changes, including increased blood flow in people over 50. (Brain-based learning strategies emphasise emotion, thematic instruction, differentiated learning, movement, and the use of mental models in learning programmes.)
Lead researcher, Dr Sandra Bond Chapman, the centre’s chief director is quoted in a university press release saying: . “Until recently, cognitive decline in healthy adults was viewed as an inevitable consequence of aging. This research shows that neuroplasticity can be harnessed to enhance brain performance and provides hope for individuals to improve their own mental capacity and cognitive brain health by habitually exercising higher-order thinking strategies no matter their age.”
If none of these excites you, there are many other things you can do to protect yourself.
Food for thought
Mark Hyman, a US medical doctor and world authority in the field of functional medicine (medicine that works, first does no harm and attacks the causes rather than symptoms of illness), has some tips on his blog, and they include not listening to the naysayers, who would like you to think that vitamin and mineral supplementation is a waste of time and money:
• Balance your blood sugar with a whole-food, low-glycaemic diet (the glycaemic index is a rating of how quickly a food will release glucose into your bloodstream;
• Exercise daily — even a 30-minute walk can help;
• Deeply relax daily with yoga, meditation, biofeedback or just deep breathing;
• Take a multivitamin and mineral supplement, an omega-3 fat supplement, vitamin D as well as extra vitamins B6 and B12 and folate;
• Treat thyroid or low sex hormone conditions; and
• Get rid of mercury through a medical detoxification programme.
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