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Wise Up

Use these 7 tips to keep your brain in shape for a lifetime.

By Stephanie Woodard

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As the years go by and you mature—not just in your yoga practice but also in your life—your mind continues to grow and change in positive ways. That may surprise you, because much media attention has focused on what can go wrong with the brain over time, says Luigi Ferrucci, MD, PhD, and the director of the National Institute on Aging's Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the longest-running research of its kind.

Ferrucci points out that most of us won't suffer the dreaded diseases of the mind that are associated with aging, such as Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. In fact, we have plenty to look forward to in our later years. "For example," he says, "you may lose some vocabulary or have a less perfect memory, but you will see improvement in your abilities to combine words and divergent ideas and to create new concepts." That happens because certain parts of the brain shrink as we get older, while other (often adjacent) areas grow, according to the latest research.

Ayurveda, India's ancient system of medicine, espouses similar ideas, says Carrie Demers, MD, the medical director of the Himalayan Institute Total Health Center, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. "As you age, a subtle energy called vata, or air energy, increasingly pervades your body. If this energy isn't balanced, it can make you feel spacey and forgetful. Concentration dissipates, and your thoughts can become disjointed. But if vata is balanced by healthy daily routines, herbs, and good social relationships, it contributes to a wonderful expansion of your mental capacities." The result, says Demers, is that you become more creative and able to handle complex ideas.

Ferrucci illustrates the positive effects of aging on the human mind by pointing to the legendary classical pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1903—1989), who was considered technically flawless as a young man. "When Horowitz was older, he was less technically perfect but he understood the music so much more; as a result, he was able to better convey its emotion and meaning." Similarly, although it can become more challenging to learn new things in your later years, you're able to approach and elaborate on what you've already learned with new depth and sophistication.

1. Salute the Sun

Vitamin D doesn't just help metabolize calcium and keep your bones strong; a growing body of research suggests that it's essential for cognitive function. But according to the Centers for Disease Control, 90 percent of Americans have less vitamin D in their bloodstream than they need. To ensure that you're getting enough, spend time outdoors without sunscreen during nonpeak hours, suggests Carrie Demers. Or take 400 to 800 international units of vitamin D3 daily, says Luigi Ferrucci.

2. Take a Brain Tonic

For thousands of years, Ayurvedic healers have prescribed herbs to sharpen memory, focus, and concentration—to improve both everyday life and the quality of meditation.

They recommend the herb brahmi (also known as gotu kola) as a medhya rasayana— a brain tonic or rejuvenator. "Brahmi improves focus," Demers adds. "It's calming but not a sedative, so it inspires the flow of ideas." Demers recommends taking the herb in extract form, drinking a mixture of 30 drops in an ounce of water twice a day.

Another Ayurvedic brain booster is chya-vanprash, a tasty medicinal jam packed with more than 40 herbs and minerals that is sometimes referred to as Ayurveda's "multi-vitamin." Ayurvedic experts say it calms vata and note that it's traditionally used to stave off aging-related problems such as memory loss. Research suggests that its high concentration of vitamin C and other antioxidants is likely the key to its power. Demers recommends mixing a teaspoon of the jam into a glass of warm milk or spreading it on a cracker. "The original recipe, devised thousands of years ago, has been lost," she says, "but this jam always includes sweetened amla fruit, ghee, and a range of beneficial herbs—including a half dozen that are good for the mind."

3. Make New Friends

Meaningful engagement with others—such as dancing, playing board games, traveling, and volunteering—lowers your risk for dementia. Ferrucci cites a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that suggests social activities stimulate brain regions that can eventually compensate for other regions that begin to atrophy as we age.

4. Think Positive

Negative thinking isn't just bad for your mood—it's also bad for your brain. Chronic anger, hate, and resentment produce stress, causing your adrenals to release the hormone cortisol, explains clinical psychologist Jeffrey M. Greeson, PhD, an assistant professor at Duke University Medical Center. Over time, high levels of cortisol shrink the hippocampus (the brain area associated with memory and emotions) and can cause more negative thinking. Greeson recommends "reframing" your negative thoughts whenever they bubble up. "Ask yourself, 'Is there another way of seeing this thought or situation? How would my best friend look at this thought? Is there a silver lining?'" This helps you transform negative thoughts into positive ones.

5. Boost B12

Studies show that vitamin B12 deficiency is linked to memory loss. The easiest way to get this brain-boosting vitamin is to eat eggs, dairy products, or meat, says Demers, but if you're vegan, you can also get B12 by eating fermented foods like miso, kimchee, sauerkraut, or homemade pickles.

6. Take Your Seat

Studies have repeatedly shown that meditating regularly can keep your mind nimble and clear. According to Greeson, who recently analyzed 52 studies for an article in Complementary Health Practice Review, people who practice mindfulness meditation display increased activity in brain areas associated with attention and concentration. Their minds are more nimble, their abilities to focus and to recall are stronger, and they have a greater sense of well-being than do people who don't meditate.

7. Get a Move On

Regular exercise (even walking) is your most powerful weapon against cognitive decline, says Ferrucci. A 2011 study suggests that the hippocampus, which typically begins to shrink in people between the ages of 55 and 60, can significantly increase in volume in those who walk for just 40 minutes a day, three times a week, therefore improving spatial memory. This means that you're less likely to forget where you've put down those car keys. And remembering that complex route to the park you wanted to check out? No problem.

Stephanie Woodard is a journalist based in New York City who writes about health and other topics.

August 2011

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