How exactly does one keep their brain and memory strong and healthy? This was one of the driving questions I had when I began the quest to improve my memory and become a four-time USA Memory Champion.
I didn't want to end up with Alzheimer's disease when I got older, as my grandmother did, so I wondered, "If I keep my brain healthy and fit, could I prolong its lifespan?"
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The answer is yes. Over the years of my memory studies and training, I've come up with four key pillars of brain health that I try to live by on a daily basis, and I've seen firsthand just how much of a difference even a small amount of these changes can make.
Diet: I think, therefore I am ... what I eat
As a rule of thumb, whatever is good for your body is good for your brain. There are, however, a few things to eat that may boost your memory and a few things that may hamper it.
The most convincing evidence is from the Midas Study, in which subjects 55 and older with mild memory complaints were given a daily dose of supplemental docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid that's an important structural component of the brain and is often extracted from fish oil as a nutritional supplement. When taken over six months, DHA was correlated with statistically significant improvements in cognitive function, including memory and learning.
Other studies have shown that berries or other foods that are high in antioxidants (goji berries, blueberries, pecans, artichokes and kidney beans, just to name a few) have strong antioxidant capacities, which can help fight the brain's high susceptibility to oxidative damage.
Although there are some proven mental health benefits to eating certain foods, when all is said and done, eating well and avoiding or limiting the bad stuff (processed foods, sugars, carbs) will do wonders for your mental clarity. There is no denying the benefits of following a healthy diet, such as improvement in focus, heightened mental acuity and, of course, a better memory.
Physical training: No pain, no gain -- to your brain
Studies on exercise and memory are far more conclusive than those on diet, and at this point, it's practically a fact that exercise benefits your brain.
It's also a given that when you exercise, you generally feel better about yourself. You feel healthy, you look better, blood flow to the brain is improved (since your brain is a highly vascular organ), and your body runs better altogether. You will feel sharper and more on your game just because you were active.
Social interaction: Hanging out with the Joneses
Social interaction certainly boosts quality of life, and it can boost other things, too. For example, elderly women with larger social networks have been found to be less susceptible to dementia than their less-connected peers.
On a more basic level, socializing involves learning things about different people and retaining that information in order to interact comfortably with them. Whether that means knowing the details of their life stories, their interests or simply how to hold a conversation without angering them, it's a way to broaden your mental frame of reference so you have more associations to help you remember.
Brain training: All aboard the brain train
The biggest memory booster of all is keeping your brain active or challenging it on a regular basis. It can be as simple as learning a new language, reading something new and difficult, learning a skill, doing puzzles or (my personal favorite, of course) memorizing.
But the hardest part about keeping your brain active on a daily basis is staying motivated to do so. We all have the potential to practice something a lot, but what we don't all have is the drive and dedication to necessarily do that practice every day. And that's fine. My point is this: Keep your brain active by doing something you are passionate about enough to do it every day.
The great thing about memory is that there are tons of daily use-cases where you can naturally practice without having to set aside time to do it. So make memory your daily brain exercise, or make it something else. It's up to you. Just make sure you challenge your brain in some way every day.
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