Keeping brain sharp

“The idea that Alzheimer's is entirely genetic and unpreventable is perhaps the
greatest misconception about the disease,” says Gary Small, M.D., director of
the UCLA Center on Aging. Researchers now know that Alzheimer's, like heart
disease and cancer, develops over decades and can be influenced by lifestyle
factors including cholesterol, blood pressure, obesity, depression, education,
nutrition, sleep and mental, physical and social activity.

The big news: Mountains of research reveals that simple things you do every day might cut your odds of losing your mind to Alzheimer's.

In search of scientific ways to delay and outlive Alzheimer's and other
dementias, I tracked down thousands of studies and interviewed dozens of
experts. The results in a new book: 100 Simple Things You Can Do to
Prevent Alzheimer's and Age-Related Memory Loss (Little, Brown; $19.99).
Here are 10 strategies I found most surprising.

1. Have coffee. In an amazing flip-flop, coffee is the new brain tonic. A large
European study showed that drinking three to five cups of coffee a day in
midlife cut Alzheimer's risk 65% in late life. University of South Florida
researcher Gary Arendash credits caffeine: He says it reduces dementia-causing amyloid in animal brains. Others credit coffee's antioxidants. So drink up, Arendash advises, unless your doctor says you shouldn't.

2. Floss. Oddly, the health of your teeth and gums can help predict dementia. University of Southern California research found that having periodontal disease before age 35 quadrupled the odds of dementia years later. Older people with tooth and gum disease score lower on memory and cognition tests, other studies show. Experts speculate that inflammation in diseased mouths migrates to the brain.

3. Google. Doing an online search can stimulate your aging brain even more than reading a book, says UCLA's Gary Small, who used brain MRIs to prove it. The biggest surprise: Novice Internet surfers, ages 55 to 78, activated key memory and learning centers in the brain after only a week of Web surfing for an hour a day..

4. Grow new brain cells.. Impossible, scientists used to say. Now it's believed that thousands of brain cells are born daily. The trick is to keep the newborns
alive. What works: aerobic exercise (such as a brisk 30-minute walk every day), strenuous mental activity, eating salmon and other fatty fish, and avoiding obesity, chronic stress, sleep deprivation, heavy drinking and vitamin B deficiency.

5. Drink apple juice. Apple juice can push production of the “memory chemical” acetylcholine; that's the way the popular Alzheimer's drug Aricept works, says
Thomas Shea, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts. He was surprised that old mice given apple juice did better on learning and memory tests than mice that received water. A dose for humans: 16 ounces, or two to three apples a day.

6. Protect your head.. Blows to the head, even mild ones early in life, increase odds of dementia years later. Pro football players have 19 times the typical rate of memory-related diseases. Alzheimer's is four times more common in elderly who suffer a head injury, Columbia University finds. Accidental falls doubled an older person's odds of dementia five years later in another study. Wear seat belts and helmets, fall-proof your house, and don't take risks.

7. Meditate. Brain scans show that people who meditate regularly have less cognitive decline and brain shrinkage — a classic sign of Alzheimer's — as they age. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine says yoga meditation of 12 minutes a day for two months improved blood flow and cognitive functioning in seniors with memory problems.

8. Take D. A “severe deficiency” of vitamin D boosts older Americans' risk of
cognitive impairment 394%, an alarming study by England's University of Exeter finds. And most Americans lack vitamin D. Experts recommend a daily dose of 800 IU to 2,000 IU of vitamin D3.

9. Fill your brain. It 's called “cognitive reserve.” A rich accumulation of life experiences — education, marriage, socializing, a stimulating job, language skills, having a purpose in life, physical activity and mentally demanding leisure activities — makes your brain better able to tolerate plaques and tangles. You can even have significant Alzheimer's pathology and no symptoms of dementia if you have high cognitive reserve, says David Bennett, M.D., of Chicago's Rush University Medical Center.

10. Avoid infection. Astonishing new evidence ties Alzheimer's to cold sores, gastric ulcers, Lyme disease, pneumonia and the flu. Ruth Itzhaki, Ph.D., of the University of Manchester in England estimates the cold-sore herpes simplex virus is incriminated in 60% of Alzheimer's cases. The theory: Infections trigger excessive beta amyloid “gunk” that kills brain cells. Proof is still lacking, but why not avoid common infections and take appropriate vaccines, antibiotics
and antiviral agents?

What to Drink for Good Memory
A great way to keep your aging memory sharp and avoid Alzheimer's is to drink the right stuff.

a. Tops: Juice. A glass of any fruit or vegetable juice three times a week slashed Alzheimer's odds 76% in Vanderbilt University research. Especially protective:blueberry, grape and apple juice, say other studies.

b. Tea: Only a cup of black or green tea a week cut rates of cognitive decline in older people by 37%, reports the Alzheimer's Association. Only brewed tea works. Skip bottled tea, which is devoid of antioxidants.

c. Caffeine beverages. Surprisingly, caffeine fights memory loss and Alzheimer's, suggest dozens of studies. Best sources: coffee (one Alzheimer's researcher drinks five cups a day), tea and chocolate. Beware caffeine if you are pregnant, have high blood pressure, insomnia or anxiety.

d. Red wine: If you drink alcohol, a little red wine is most apt to benefit your
aging brain. It's high in antioxidants. Limit it to one daily glass for women,
two for men. Excessive alcohol, notably binge drinking, brings on Alzheimer's.

e. Two to avoid: Sugary soft drinks, especially those sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. They make lab animals dumb. Water with high copper content also can up your odds of Alzheimer's. Use a water filter that removes excess minerals.

5 Ways to Save Your Kids from Alzheimer's Now
Alzheimer's isn't just a disease that starts in old age. What happens to your
child's brain seems to have a dramatic impact on his or her likelihood of
Alzheimer's many decades later.

Here are five things you can do now to help save your child from Alzheimer's and memory loss later in life, according to the latest research.

1. Prevent head blows: Insist your child wear a helmet during biking, skating,
skiing, baseball, football, hockey, and all contact sports. A major blow as well
as tiny repetitive unnoticed concussions can cause damage, leading to memory loss and Alzheimer's years later.

2 Encourage language skills: A teenage girl who is a superior writer is eight
times more likely to escape Alzheimer's in late life than a teen with poor
linguistic skills. Teaching young children to be fluent in two or more languages
makes them less vulnerable to Alzheimer's.

3. Insist your child go to college: Education is a powerful Alzheimer's deterrent. The more years of formal schooling, the lower the odds. Most Alzheimer's prone: teenage drop outs. For each year of education, your risk of dementia drops 11%, says a recent University of Cambridge study.

4. Provide stimulation: Keep your child's brain busy with physical, mental and
social activities and novel experiences. All these contribute to a bigger,
better functioning brain with more so-called 'cognitive reserve.' High cognitive
reserve protects against memory decline and Alzheimer's.

5. Spare the junk food: Lab animals raised on berries, spinach and high omega-3 fish have great memories in old age. Those overfed sugar, especially high fructose in soft drinks, saturated fat and trans fats become overweight and diabetic, with smaller brains and impaired memories as they age, a prelude to Alzheimer's..

How to Ward off Dementia:

Implementation of some of these ideas may help!

To help ward off dementia, train your brain.
Timing is everything, comedians say.

It's also important when it comes to taking care of your brain. Yet
most of us start worrying about dementia after retirement - and that
may be too little, too late.

Experts say that if you really want to ward off dementia, you need to
start taking care of your brain in your 30s and 40s - or even earlier.

"More and more research is suggesting that lifestyle is very important
to your brain's health," says Dr. Paul Nussbaum, a neuropsychologist
and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh
School of Medicine. "If you want to live a long, healthy life, then many
of us need to start as early as we can."

So what can you do to beef up your brain - and possibly ward off
dementia? Nussbaum, who recently gave a speech on the topic for the
Winter Park (Fla.) Health Foundation, offers 20 tips that may help.

1. Join clubs or organizations that need volunteers. If you start
volunteering now, you won't feel lost and unneeded after you retire.

2. Develop a hobby or two. Hobbies help you develop a robust brain
because you're trying something new and complex.

3. Practice writing with your nondominant hand several minutes every
day. This will exercise the opposite side of your brain and fire up
those neurons.

4. Take dance lessons. In a study of nearly 500 people, dancing was
the only regular physical activity associated with a significant decrease
in the incidence of dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. The people
who danced three or four times a week showed 76 percent less
incidence of dementia than those who danced only once a week or not at all.

5. Need a hobby? Start gardening. Researchers in New Zealand found
that, of 1,000 people, those who gardened regularly were less likely to
suffer from dementia. Not only does gardening reduce stress, but
gardeners use their brains to plan gardens; they use visual and spatial
reasoning to lay out a garden.

6. Buy a pedometer and walk 10,000 steps a day. Walking daily can
reduce the risk of dementia because cardiovascular health is important
to maintain blood flow to the brain.

7. Read and write daily. Reading stimulates a wide variety of brain
areas that process and store information. Likewise, writing (not
copying) stimulates many areas of the brain as well.

8. Start knitting. Using both hands works both sides of your brain. And
it's a stress reducer..

9. Learn a new language. Whether it's a foreign language or sign
language, you are working your brain by making it go back and forth
between one language and the other. A researcher in England found
that being bilingual seemed to delay symptoms of Alzheimer's disease
for four years. (And some research suggests that the earlier a child
learns sign language, the higher his IQ - and people with high IQs are
less likely to have dementia. So start them early.)

10. Play board games such as Scrabble and Monopoly. Not only are
you taxing your brain, you're socializing too. (Playing solo games,
such as solitaire or online computer brain games can be helpful, but
Nussbaum prefers games that encourage you to socialize too.)

11. Take classes throughout your lifetime. Learning produces structural
and chemical changes in the brain, and education appears to help
people live longer. Brain researchers have found that people with
advanced degrees live longer - and if they do have Alzheimer's, it often
becomes apparent only in the very later stages of the disease.

12. Listen to classical music. A growing volume of research suggests
that music may hard wire the brain, building links between the two
hemispheres. Any kind of music may work, but there's some research
that shows positive effects for classical music, though researchers
don't understand why.

13.. Learn a musical instrument. It may be harder than it was when
you were a kid, but you'll be developing a dormant part of your brain.

14. Travel. When you travel (whether it's to a distant vacation spot or
on a different route across town), you're forcing your brain to navigate
a new and complex environment. A study of London taxi drivers found
experienced drivers had larger brains because they have to store lots
of information about locations and how to navigate there.

15. Pray. Daily prayer appears to help your immune system. And
people who attend a formal worship service regularly live longer
and report happier, healthier lives.

16. Learn to meditate. It's important for your brain that you learn to
shut out the stresses of everyday life.

17. Get enough sleep. Studies have shown a link between interrupted
sleep and dementia.

18. Eat more foods containing omega-3 fatty acids: Salmon, sardines,
tuna, ocean trout, mackerel or herring, plus walnuts (which are higher
in omega 3s than salmon) and flaxseed. Flaxseed oil, cod liver oil and
walnut oil are good sources too..

19. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants in fruits and
vegetables mop up some of the damage caused by free radicals, one
of the leading killers of brain cells.

20. Eat at least one meal a day with family and friends. You'll slow
down, socialize, and research shows you'll eat healthier food than if
you ate alone or on the go.