In 1913, Ramon y Cajal, a Nobel Prize winner wrote that our brains could only lose, never gain brain tissue. Up until recently, all aging of the brain was thought to be a one-way street. Since the brain was thought to be insulated from food, medications, bacteria and other things in our circulatory system by the blood-brain barrier, it was believed there was nothing an adult could do to improve his or her brain function. The best we could do was avoid brain injury and hope we had good genes.
Not until 1998 was the idea that our brains could not regenerate debunked in an article announcing the discovery in of new human brain cells being created in adults in the dentate gyrus, a small area of the hippocampus. These new cells are highly versatile stem cells whose genesis is promoted by physical exercise.
Exercise and the Brain
Exercise is considered such a powerful weapon against mental decline, that Strauch’s recent book on the middle aged brain notes that, the neuroscientists she interviewed, had upped the amount of their own physical exercise. Some evidence suggests that encouraging the building of new brain cells through exercise, may be what fights both depression and dementia. Depression is linked with higher rates of dementia.
Things associated with higher risk of dementia are smoking, obesity, head injury, alcohol abuse, depression, high cholesterol, stroke and high blood pressure, lower levels of education, and diseases such as HIV.
Supplements, Foods and Drinks that Boost Memory
Increasing our intake of anti-inflammatory foods and medications and antioxidants is thought to help protect the brain from damage. Foods containing antioxidants include prunes, blueberries, red grapes and raisins, kale and broccoli among others. Not surprisingly, these foods are also recommended for general health and are not implicated in the development of high cholesterol, high blood pressure or obesity. Walnuts appear to be protective of the brain as well.
Despite causing some excitement in the past, a large study found no better results with gingko biloba that with a placebo. Turmeric, one of the primary ingredients in Indian curry, has spurred interest of late. In addition to the anti-inflammatory effects seen in the laboratory, it is worth noting that India has lower rates of dementia than many other countries. You can also take brain pills to enhance your brain.
Gaming for Memory Boost?
While there are many computer games, phone apps, and the like touted as being able to improve memory, often there is little, if any, evidence that playing these games will translate into a real-world advantage. However, at least one, Brain Fitness, is backed by such empirical research according to Strauch.
Crossword puzzles are often mentioned as good for keeping brains sharp. But it has been noted, that it might be better to learn new words, rather than try to tap into those we already know, as we do in a crossword puzzle. Reading, which introduces us to new words and concepts, is likely to be as effective, if not more so. Education powerfully protects against dementia, perhaps by building what is called “cognitive reserve” or extra neural connections that can be relied upon if others are put out of commission by plaque or tangles that form in some older brains.
For those hoping for a single magic bullet, the findings that engaging in exercise and eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables may be a disappointing conclusion, but that conclusion is backed by the best research available. Don’t smoke. Keep your weight and blood pressure down. Take a walk and read a book. Live long, and help those brain cells prosper.