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Published on: November 29, 2013
by Dr. Jennifer Pearlman for Huffington Post:
Over the past decade, neuroscientists have discovered that adult brains are capable of adapting and developing new connections (neuroplasticity). By keeping your brain fit through regular mental exercises and brain challenges you can expand your capacity and prevent age-related loss of function (dementia).
What does an exercise program for your brain look like? Research supports partaking in brain games (available as apps on your smart phone), word challenges such as crossword puzzles or Sudoku, card games like bridge and learning new skills (like a new language). Challenge your brain every day.
Women are living longer than ever before. With a life expectancy of 86 years, women are outliving men and are facing unprecedented rates of health issues related to brain aging and disease. By the age of 70 years, women have a 1 in 7 chance of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and by 2050 there will be a doubling in the prevalence of the disease with an estimated 10 million women affected.
Emerging research is shedding light on gender-based differences in brain function and aging. High resolution functional imaging studies have shown that women’s brains look and work differently when compared to their male counterparts, with dramatic differences appearing at puberty and menopause. Until now, clinical studies in the field have focused on men late in the process once disease has settled in. But an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. By adopting a brain healthy lifestyle early on, it may be possible to preserve and enhance brain function.
The following six pillars of Brain Healthy Living can get you started on your Brain Fitness.
Exercise your Brain
Over the past decade, neuroscientists have discovered that adult brains are capable of adapting and developing new connections (neuroplasticity). By keeping your brain fit through regular mental exercises and brain challenges you can expand your capacity and prevent age-related loss of function (dementia). What does an exercise program for your brain look like? Research supports partaking in brain games (available as apps on your smart phone), word challenges such as crossword puzzles or Sudoku, card games like bridge and learning new skills (like a new language). Challenge your brain every day.
Feed your Brain
Brain development in early humans (encephalization) was achieved when humans began to acquire a shore-based diet rich in fish-derived omega 3 fatty acids (most notably DHA). In fact, it is now believed that the consumption of DHA was a pivotal event in our forebrain development. In modern times, fish consumption tracks closely with cognition and mood. Countries that consume the least fish and DHA have the highest rates of depression and dementia. DHA is found in fatty fish such as wild salmon and sardines, chia seeds and walnuts. Walnuts make the brain super food list due to their high DHA and alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) content, not to mention their brain-like appearance. Also on the brain super food list are blueberries (which contain important phytonutrients like anthocyanins, quercetin and resveratrol), coffee (which provides natural caffeine and anti-oxidants), and kale (one of the most nutrient dense foods in nature, rich in anti-oxidants and tryptophan -a precursor to serotonin that supports mood).
Protect your Frame
A strong frame is required to support a healthy brain. Protect your frame and avoid the frailty syndrome by ensuring high intake of lean dietary protein and foods (not necessarily supplements) rich in the essential bone building minerals such as calcium and magnesium. Vitamin D3 is the necessary key to allow bone mineralization to occur and is not reliably found in our diet. Supplementation in aging women at higher levels (typically 2000IU and above) is required. Weight resistance training is critical to preserving both bone and muscle mass and should be performed at least 60 minutes per week.
Keep Hormones in Balance
In women, times of drastic hormonal change such as before menstruation, after the birth of a baby, and the peri-menopause years are all marked with significant disruption in mood and memory. Whether it is PMS, post-partum depression or the frequent memory loss that marks the menopause transition; hormones have a major impact on women’s brains. Estrogen is integral for working memory and women with early menopause have been shown to have higher rates of dementia. However, there are many other brain active hormones such as progesterone, which balances estrogen and supports mood and sleep, and testosterone, which has direct brain effects mediated through androgen receptors. Maintaining hormone balance can be vital to ensuring a healthy brain through the later years of life.
Sleep more, Stress less
A good night’s sleep is essential for a sharp brain. Sleep is a time for resting your nervous system and allowing cell renewal and DNA repair to occur. Not enough sleep can lead to a host of unfavourable health outcomes such as depression, obesity and heart disease. Inadequate sleep is trumped only by chronic stress in terms of morbidity and mortality. Chronic and extreme stress has been shown to adversely affect women’s brains more so than men. So it is not surprising that stress management is key to optimal brain health and longevity. Build a toolbox full of good coping techniques such as meditation, deep breathing and Tai Chi, to help you deal with life’s challenges and keep stress at bay.
New research has shown that women who have more social ties perform better on cognitive tests and have less depression. The social network becomes increasingly important for aging women who tend to outlive their male partners. Be sure to cherish your friends and stay connected to keep your brain firing on all cylinders.
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