A young mind in golden years

Ask The Expert Brain Health

July 17, 2008|By Holly Selby

Lately, there has been a great deal of buzz about taking steps to keep our brains young and alert. Indeed, it may behoove us to pay attention: There are things most people can do to help keep their brains healthy, says Dr. Majid Fotuhi, director for the Center of Memory and Brain Health at the LifeBridge Health Brain & Spine Institute. Fotuhi also is the author of The Memory Cure: How to Protect Your Brain Against Memory Loss and Alzheimer's.

Are there really things that we all can do to try to keep our brains young?

Yes, there is plenty of data to support the idea that you can do things to keep your brain young and to ward off Alzheimer's disease.

What does the research show?

That there are two things that people can do: Prevent bad things from happening to the brain, and provide good things to the brain that can help make the normal brain stronger.

Things that can have a negative effect on the brain include high blood pressure, diabetes, stress, obesity, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle. These negative things make a young brain become frail as it grows older.

Things that can help make the normal brain a stronger brain include physical exercise, mental stimulation and being happy.

What effect do things like high blood pressure have on the brain?

People who have high blood pressure are two or three times more likely to develop Alzheimer's. People with uncontrolled diabetes also will lose their memories faster than people who don't have diabetes. And there is an inverse relationship between a person's waistline and the likelihood of remaining sharp.

What should we be doing to help our brains stay young?

The general principle is try to have a healthy lifestyle and have fun (it reduces stress) and stimulate your brain.

Many baby boomers worry about Alzheimer's, and, in fact, it is good to begin early to fight with good diet and exercise and no stress.

Let's say you are a 57-year-old who is overweight and has a little high blood pressure and may have borderline diabetes. Well, you have the opportunity to reverse these things early and to make sure your brain remains sharp.

What else can we do?

Brain stimulation is a great thing. People who do crosswords reduce their risk of Alzheimer's. Now, if you don't like crosswords, choose another hobby. Go bird watching. Collect stamps. Play card games, bridge or Scrabble. Anything that makes you think. Do something other than lie on the couch and watch television. Or if you want to watch TV, watch for a half-hour, and watch PBS.

What about eating?

If you have a gut feeling that the food in front of you is junk food, then don't eat. Instead, enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables. Strawberries and other kinds of berries are great sources of antioxidants and lower the buildup of toxic oxidant levels in your brain.

Do you personally try to take some of these steps?

I'm a neurologist. I'm writing a book. I teach at Hopkins and Harvard Medical schools. I go dancing with my wife one night a week. I'm not fat; I'm not thin. And one or two mornings a week, I get up early and do 45 minutes of exercise.

On weekends I play with my kids. We hardly ever watch TV.

What do you find most intriguing about new research on brains and memory?

What I find quite exciting is brain elasticity. This means that that the brain is not a fixed structure like your nose. It has the potential to change throughout life. Use it or lose it applies to more than just your muscles.

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