a Care2 favorite by AgingCare.com
By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor
Cognitive reserve, the term used to describe the mechanism by which a person’s mind can compensate for damage to their brain, has become a buzzword in the medical community, thanks to its connection to one of the most infamous issues of modern aging: dementia.
Research indicates that people who have solid stores of cognitive reserve are generally less likely to exhibit the classic signs of dementia—short-term memory loss, difficulty multitasking, etc.—even if their brain scans indicate mental damage. This is because cognitive reserve effectively makes the mind stronger and more nimble, enabling it to come up with ways to compensate for disease-related loss of functioning.
Seek out and embrace new challenges; your brain will thank you
Shlomo Breznitz, Ph.D., founder of Cognifit and author of Maximum Brainpower: Challenging the Brain for Health and Wisdom, feels that finding ways to consistently engage the brain with new and stimulating experiences is the key to cultivating more cognitive reserve and staving off mental decline.
No matter what age they are, Breznitz stresses that starting a cognitive fitness regimen may help a person ward off the symptoms of dementia. “Our cognitive skills are not fixed. At all ages the brain has the ability to respond to new information and new stimuli,” he says.
More confusion now may mean less confusion later
According to Breznitz, the twin traits of novelty and variety are invaluable when coming up with activities to enhance cognitive reserve. Sudoku and crosswords alone won’t work, he says. You’ve got to get creative when coming up with ways to stimulate the brain.
In the same way elite athletes and their trainers use the concept of muscle confusion (varying the types and duration of exercises to expose weaknesses and challenge muscles in new ways) to maximize their physical fitness, switching up the things you do to engage your mental muscle can help maximize your mental fitness.
“Challenging the brain helps maintain cognitive vigor and capacity. And maintaining our cognitive health maintains our quality of life,” Breznitz says.
He offers a few suggestions of things practically anyone can do to beef up their brainpower:
1. Work on your weaknesses: “Since novelty and variety are the keys to battling routines and enhancing cognitive ability, engaging our minds outside of our established domains would be more beneficial,” says Breznitz. For example, if you’re really good with numbers but not such a big literary buff, try picking up a classic such as Moby Dick and see if you can read the whole thing. You may find that you’re actually a closet book-lover.
2. Take the road less traveled: Take a different route when going to the grocery store or the doctor’s office. Because we travel them with such frequency, driving routes are one of the biggest routines we have—and one of the easiest to practice breaking. Just make sure you leave a little earlier than normal to give yourself some time in case you get lost or your new route takes longer than you anticipate.
3. Dominate your non-dominant hand: Pretty much everyone has a dominant hand that they use to eat, write, and perform other daily activities. Mix things up by recruiting your neglected hand to some activities. Your non-dominant appendage might not be up to the task of transcribing a beautiful handwritten letter, so you may want to start off small by holding your fork in the other hand during mealtimes. Take it slow and try to avoid getting frustrated. Remember, challenging exercises like this may make you feel foolish, but you’re actually helping to preserve your mental capacity.
4. Change your point of view: You don’t have to limit yourself to academic or physical challenges. Emotional experiments can serve the dual purpose of helping your personal life as well as your mental health. For example, say you’re in a fight with your husband over who should take care of managing the family’s finances. You’re an accountant by trade, so you feel that you have the perfect knowledge base to handle the job. But your husband is more involved in the day-to-day running of the household, so he feels that he has a better handle on how much money is needed to support the family versus how much money can be saved for the future. Try to really listen to what your husband has to say, and attempt to approach the issue from his point of view. Forcing yourself to get out of your own head and examine the problem from a different perspective will tax your brain and, as an added benefit, you may find that empathizing with your husband’s position helps the two of you come to an agreeable compromise.
Be a curious cat
1. Go back to school: Taking a class on something that is interesting to you is a great way to flex your mental muscles, according to Breznitz. And, thanks to the Internet, a time-crunched, cash-strapped person can enjoy free lectures without leaving their house. There are a number of different websites that offer video lectures on everything from organic chemistry to classical mythology, taught by professors from such celebrated institutions as Stanford and Harvard University. Apple also has a program called iTunesU, which can be downloaded to any computer and has a collection of college courses that you can bookmark and stream for no charge.
2. Take a trip: Traveling to someplace you’ve never been is a fantastic way to fire up dormant neurons. If you don’t have the time or the funds to become part of the jet set, don’t worry, you can still get away. Breznitz says that simple activities like walking a new path along the beach, or in a local park, can be enough to stimulate your mind.
3. Explore your strengths: Attending to your mental and physical weaknesses is likely to produce a greater cognitive challenge. But Breznitz feels that it’s important not to neglect your strengths. “Investment in one’s strengths is needed for both self-image (sense of success) and for a more in-depth understanding of problems,” he says. Expanding upon an existing talent can be a great way to boost your self-esteem while challenging your brain. For example, if you’ve always been an avid reader and want to branch out into writing, set aside time each day to practice. You can buy books of daily writing prompts at your local books store, or go online and get a few for free. Who knows, you may find your inner romance novelist.
4. Get a hobby: Have you always wanted to learn how to play the guitar, learn a new language, etc., but you just never got around to doing it? Why not start now?
A regular breakfast of 100% whole grain cereal with fruit and low-fat milk is great. for maintaining mood balance.
(CNN) – Can’t sleep? Got the PMS blues? Before you open your medicine cabinet, step into your kitchen.
“Real, whole, fresh food is the most powerful drug on the planet,” says the author of “The Blood Sugar Solution” cookbook, Dr. Mark Hyman. “It regulates every biological function of your body.” In fact, recent research suggests not only what to eat but when to eat it for maximum benefit. Check out the latest smart food fixes.
Problem: I’m bloated
Food fix #1: Dig in to juicy fruits and vegetables
When you’re feeling puffy, you may not want to chow down on watery produce, but consuming foods like melon, cucumber and celery is an excellent way to flush out your system, says the author of the book “Food & Mood,” dietician Elizabeth Somer.
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“We need sodium to survive,” she explains, “but because we often eat too much of it, our bodies retain water to dilute the blood down to a sodium concentration it can handle. Eating produce with high water content helps the dilution process, so your body can excrete excess sodium and water.”
Food fix #2: Load up on enzymes
Bloating can also be a sign that your intestines are out of whack. “If you’re irregular or experience gas right after eating, papaya can help,” explains the author of the book “Food as Medicine,” Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa. “Eating 1 cup several times a week helps rejuvenate the gastrointestinal system, thanks to papaya’s digestive enzyme papain, which breaks down protein.”
The fiber also helps push food through your intestines, improving regularity. Try a smoothie with papaya, pineapple (it also contains digestive enzymes), protein powder, ice and almond milk.
Problem: I’m on an emotional roller coaster
Food fix #1: Say yes to breakfast
“People who eat within an hour or two of waking up have a more even mood throughout the rest of the day and perform better at work,” Somer says. British researchers found that study participants who skipped their morning meal did worse on memory tests and were more tired by midday than those who had eaten.
The optimal breakfast includes a whole grain to supply glucose for your brain to run on, protein to satisfy hunger and keep your blood sugar levels steady and one or two antioxidant-rich fruits or vegetables. Somer’s suggestion: a 100% whole-grain cereal that contains at least 4 grams of fiber and no more than 5 grams of sugar, eaten with fruit and low-fat milk.
Food fix #2: Stock up on selenium
A lesser-known trace mineral, selenium – found in Brazil nuts, tuna, eggs and turkey – helps keep you on an even keel. Women whose diets are deficient in the mineral are more prone to feeling depressed.
Why? Selenium is crucial for the production of thyroid hormones, which govern metabolism and mood. You don’t need much, though: The recommended daily allowance for selenium is 55 micrograms, and you can get that amount by eating one 3-ounce can of tuna.
Problem: My skin is acting up
The food fix: Eat your onions
Battling breakouts? The antioxidants in onions and other sulfur-rich veggies tamp down the inflammation that leads to acne, says Dr. Valori Treloar, a dermatologist in Newton, Massachusetts, and co-author of the book “The Clear Skin Diet.” The sulfur in onions, leeks and scallions helps produce a detoxifying molecule called glutathione, which a 2011 study found to be lower in the skin of people who were prone to breakouts.
This antioxidant is most potent when eaten in raw or lightly cooked foods. Try adding chopped scallions to your salad or stirring diced onions into your salsa or stir-fry. Taking folate and vitamin B6 and B12 supplements may also boost glutathione levels.
Problem: I get crazy-bad jet lag
The food fix: Don’t snack on the plane
It’s no fun spending the first days of your vacation trying to acclimate. One surprising secret to avoiding the headaches, irritability and upset stomach of jet lag is to fast for several hours before arriving at your destination. That’s because when you eat influences your circadian rhythms, in much the same way that exposure to light and dark does.
Let’s say you’re headed to France. On the plane, steer clear of most food (but drink plenty of water), set your watch to Paris time and eat a high-protein breakfast at 7 a.m., no matter where you are on your trip.
“The fast depletes your body’s energy stores, so when you eat protein the next morning, you get an extra kick and help your body produce waking-up chemicals,” explains Dave Baurac, spokesperson for the Argonne National Laboratory, a research institute based in Illinois.
Problem: I’m tossing and turning
Food fix #1: Have a late-night morsel
We’ve all been told to avoid eating too close to bedtime, but applying this rule too strictly could actually contribute to sleep woes. As anyone who has tried a fast knows, hunger can make you feel edgy, and animal studies confirm this.
“You need to be relaxed to fall asleep, and having a grumbling stomach is a distraction,” explains Kelly Glazer Baron, an instructor of neurology at Northwestern University and spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “It makes it hard to get to sleep and wakes you up at night.”
The trick is to tame the munchies 30 minutes to an hour before bed with a small snack that includes complex carbohydrates. “Since you metabolize sugars more slowly at night, a complex carb like whole wheat is a better choice,” Baron says. “It keeps your blood sugar levels even.” Try cheese and whole-wheat crackers or almonds and a banana.
Food fix #2: Add cherries
You can boost your snack’s snooze power by washing it down with a glass of tart cherry juice. A recent study of folks with chronic insomnia found that those who downed 8 ounces of juice made from tart Montmorency cherries (available in most grocery stores) one to two hours before bedtime stayed asleep longer than those who drank a placebo juice.
These sour powerhouses – which you can eat fresh, dried or juiced – possess anti-inflammatory properties that may stimulate the production of cytokines, a type of immune-system molecule that helps regulate sleep. Tart cherries are also high in melatonin, a hormone that signals the body to go to sleep and stay that way.
Problem: I have wicked PMS
The food fix: Keep an eye on iron
You might be more susceptible to the monthly blahs if you have low levels of iron, according to a new study. Researchers looked at the diets of 3,000 women over 10 years and found that those who consumed more than 20 milligrams of the mineral daily had about a 40 percent lower risk of PMS than those who ingested less than 10 milligrams.
You can get almost your full daily dose by eating 1 cup of an iron-fortified cereal; other great sources include white beans (4 milligrams per one-half cup) and sautéed fresh spinach (3 milligrams per one-half cup).
The beta-carotene found in carrots is one of the most potent carotenoids and protects your skin from the sun.
Problem: I’m so sensitive to the sun
The food fix: Pile on protective produce
While you still need the usual sun protection (SPF 30 sunscreen as well as a wide-brimmed hat), you may be able to bolster your skin’s own resistance to UV rays with what you eat. The details: Micronutrients called carotenoids in fruits and vegetables protect the skin against sunburn, recent science shows.
“Most topical sunscreens work by filtering out the UV component from the solar light that reaches the skin,” explains researcher Wilhelm Stahl, a professor of biochemistry at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany. “But these micronutrients, if you have enough in your system, actually absorb UV light and prevent damage.”
The most potent carotenoids are the beta-carotene found in carrots, endive and spinach – and the lycopene in watermelon and tomatoes. Keep in mind that the effect isn’t instantaneous; you would need to eat a carotenoid-rich diet for at least 10 to 12 weeks in order to get the full benefit, says Stahl. Still, there is a reward for your patience: skin fortified to fend off sun damage and wrinkles.
You might get nervous during take-offs and landings (breathe deeply). And, sure, sometimes the in-flight food options are enough to make you nauseous (pack your own snacks). But the 3 major health issues for air travelers are a little more complicated. Here’s what they are and how to avoid them.
1. Jet Lag
The culprit: Crossing several time zones can drape precious vacation days in grogginess.
Before you fly: If you’re flying east across several time zones, book an early flight. Flying west, book a later flight. Also, eat a high-protein breakfast on travel days to hike alertness.
In the air: Set your watch on destination time. And avoid dehydration (which increases jet-lag symptoms) by drinking plenty of water.
At your destination: Get outside for a burst of melatonin-suppressing natural light (to keep you awake). If you’ve flown east overnight, walk in the a.m. If west, get outdoors in the afternoon. If you must, nap for 20 minutes to take the edge off your fatigue. Eat a high-carb dinner on arrival night to increase sleep-inducing serotonin and melatonin. And at bed-time, if you’re having trouble sleeping, a dose of melatonin (0.5 to 5 milligrams) can help.
The culprit: Blame airplane air and its lack of humidity (about 15 percent).
Before you fly: After going through security, buy a bottle of water, even for short flights.
In the air: Skip alcohol and caffeine; they hasten dehydration. And shoot for 8 ounces of water for every hour you’re in the air.
At your destination: Drink more water!
3. Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)
The culprit: When you sit too long, particularly in an airplane where the air pressure is reduced, blood may pool in major deep-leg veins, leading to clots that can break off and cause life-threatening pulmonary embolism (PE) and, in very rare cases, stroke.
Before you fly: If you’ve had DVT or PE, have had recent surgery, are pregnant or are taking hormone-replacement therapy, or have a malignancy or blood-clotting abnormalities, talk to your doc. During long flights you may need to take blood-thinning medications (such as heparin) or wear compression stockings or support hose to reduce leg swelling.
In the air: Get your blood moving with a walk down the aisle. Or try this: Extend your legs and flex your ankles, pulling up and spreading your toes. Then, push down and curl your toes; repeat 5 times.
At your destination: Get out and walk! And keep an eye out for symptoms of unusual leg discomfort or shortness of breath—blood clots can start to show symptoms as long as several weeks after a flight.