Nine easy ways to protect your brain

Spending 10 minutes every day hunting for your keys or cellphone can convince you that you’re in the early stages of a neurodegenerative disease.

Stop the worry. Your brain isn’t — to quote Igor in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein — “Abby Normal.” In fact, it’s quite normal. Most of us misplace stuff all the time, up to nine items every day. One poll found that one third of respondents say they spend an average of 15 minutes every day looking for things like keys, phones and paperwork.

The reason most of us seem so scatterbrained doesn’t necessarily have to do with early dementia. Much more likely: It’s due to our over-committed, fast-paced, multitasking, stress-filled day. The hustle-bustle doesn’t allow us to take the time to activate our memory and encode what we are doing.

In short, we’re not paying attention when we lock the car door with the keys still in the ignition — and the car running. The remedy for such knuckleheaded moves: Slow down, focus, think, and make an effort to encode that memory into your hippocampus where it can be retrieved and make your life easier.

Once you’ve mastered the art of not losing your keys, you can start focusing on the more important task of keeping your brain healthy and mentally awake. As we age, cognitive decline is common. But the good news is that there is much you can do to boost your brainpower, and most of the strategies are the same ones that will keep your entire body healthy.

Maybe you’ve heard of the term “neuroplasticity.” It means the brain is malleable; it can grow, rewire, adapt and strengthen when properly stimulated — just as your biceps can grow by curling dumbbells. Recent studies suggest physical and mental exercise, a healthy diet and other common lifestyle changes can improve brain function, delay dementia symptoms and even lower the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

“Even though we cannot predict exactly who will get Alzheimer’s and when, we do know that people who practice Alzheimer’s prevention strategies improve their quality of life and reap immediate benefits in memory and health,” says Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Longevity Center and co-author of The Alzheimer’s Prevention Program: Keep Your Brain Healthy for the Rest of Your Life.

Here are some smart ways to boost your brain at the same time you’re building total body health:

Lose Some Weight.

Carrying around a lot of belly fat is often a sign of increased cell inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. In one Kaiser Permanente study, men who had the most abdominal fat in their 40s were the most likely to develop dementia later on. Just another reason to improve your diet and lace up your walking shoes.

Feed Your Neurons.

A sharp, healthy brain needs a good supply of oxygen and glucose to operate. Better blood flow gets it there. Increased blood flow helps brain cells communicate better, says Small, who believes that as little as 15 to 20 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day can lower Alzheimer’s risk.

Lower Your Blood Pressure.

Have it checked every year. If it’s high — that is, above 120/80 mmHg — work with your doctor to get it down. High systolic blood pressure limits blood and nutrients to the brain, making it more likely that you will lose gray matter in critical areas as you age.

Order the Salmon …

Studies have shown that eating foods like salmon, tuna and other oily fish — along with flaxseed and walnuts — that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids is a good bet for all-around brain and heart health. Omega-3 fatty acids contain DHA and EPA, which are highly concentrated in the brain and crucial for optimal brain function, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

These fatty acids are important to consume, because our neurons use them to build brain cell walls and maintain good brain health. In studies, people with low blood levels of omega-3s had lower brain volume than people with higher levels, suggesting their brains were aging more rapidly. One study at Tufts University found that people who ate oily fish three times a week reduced their risk of Alzheimer’s disease by nearly 40 percent.

… With a Side of Spinach.

The ideal side dish to your salmon entrée is a leafy green vegetable like spinach, kale, Swiss chard or collards. All have been linked to slowing cognitive decline, thanks to their high concentration of vitamin K. According to a new study from Rush University Medical Center, people who ate one to two servings of leafy greens each day had the cognitive ability of a person 11 years younger than those who consumed none.

Go Blueberry Picking.

And eat a bucketful. Inside each berry is a special antioxidant called anthocyanin, which can cross the blood-brain barrier and protect brain cells from oxidation damage. A Harvard Nurses’ Health Study of 16,000 women older than 70 found that women who consumed two or more half-cup servings of blueberries or strawberries per week remained mentally sharper than those who didn’t eat berries.

Do Puzzles.

Word-recall tasks and other brain challenges like Sudoku and crossword puzzles might decrease your risk of dementia, according to a recent study at the University of California, Berkeley. The scientists believe brain challenges prevent the buildup of beta-amyloid in the brain, the protein that accumulates in the brain of Alzheimer patients.

Be Like Popeye …

… And love olive oil. In a study from Spain, men who ate about four tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil a day showed better language comprehension, attention and abstract thinking than those on a low-fat diet. Its antioxidants (Italian olive oil has the most) may reduce brain inflammation.

Make Friends.

In an eight-year study reported in The Lancet Neurology, researchers gave cognitive-performance tests to 89 elderly people and then compared the results of testing with autopsy findings some years later. They found that the larger a person’s social network, the smaller an effect the neurological tangles and plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease had on cognitive ability. Researchers say the protective effects of having many friends were more evident for the parts of the brain where we store general knowledge, language and factual information.

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