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Staying Mentally Fit
Photo: Loretta Humble
Our lifestyle habits have a significant influence upon how the brain functions. Memory, learning, judgment, and mental acuity are all affected by how we live. A major impact upon our learning and memory is how we manage stress. Chronic stress can debilitate the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is primarily involved with memory. Unmanaged stress makes it difficult to remember things.

Getting sufficient sleep is extremely important to maintain cognitive function. A regular loss of 1-2 hours of sleep a night can impair brain function. A good night’s sleep significantly increases the brains ability to find a creative solution to problems the next day. Other factors which can cause memory problems are fatigue, anxiety, headaches, depression, dealing with chronic pain, and the use of certain prescription medications.

High blood pressure for a period of time can result in a loss of cognitive function in later life. Alzheimer’s was found to be six times more likely in obese Swedish women who had elevated blood cholesterol and high blood pressure. Impaired blood glucose metabolism also impacts memory.  Persons with elevated blood sugar levels perform poorer on short-term memory tests than persons with normal levels.

Good Food Choices

Good food choices influence brain function. The flavonoid quercetin, found in rich supply in apples protects brain cells from being damaged by free radicals. Red apples typically have higher levels than green or yellow apples. Other foods rich in quercetin include onions, blueberries, and cranberries. In animal studies, adding blueberries or purple grape juice to the diet, improved short-term memory in aging neurons.

Aging women experienced less cognitive decline when they consumed higher amounts of green, leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli) or lignan-rich foods such as sesame, flax, broccoli, and berries. The spice turmeric has shown great promise in reducing dementia in aging brains.

A deficiency of certain B vitamins can play a detrimental role in brain function. Irritability, depression, and confusion can result when diets are consumed over time, that are deficient in the B vitamins thiamin, niacin, and pyridoxine. Vitamin B12 deficiency is fairly common in the elderly and is associated with impairment in cognitive function or the exacerbation of coexisting dementia in the geriatric population. Iron deficiency has also been reported to be associated with poor attention, altered learning and memory, and depression.

Fit people have sharper brains. Regular aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, cycling or swimming, may forestall mental decline. Exercise improves blood flow to the brain and enhances memory. People over age 70 who remain as active as they had been 20-30 years earlier are observed to be more mentally alert than inactive persons. Regular exercise also improves mental outlook and self-confidence.

Engaging the brain every day with challenging reading, doing crosswords, learning a new language, learning to play a musical instrument, or other mentally stimulating activities helps the elderly remain coherent and mentally on top. Helping other people in need also has a therapeutic effect upon mental function.

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By Winston J. Craig, R.D. Copyright © 2010 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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