6 Easy Steps to Boost Your Brain Function
New Gingko Study Raises Old Controversies
Recent news of a study (1) on Gingko biloba has raised controversy about whether the herb really can boost brain function. The Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study is a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial - the "gold standard" of research - of more than 3,000, 72-to-96 year-old participants. Half took 120 mg of gingko twice daily, while the other half of the group took a placebo (no gingko).
After 6 years, the researchers noted no differences in the rates of cognitive (brain function) decline between the two groups. This may lead to the conclusion that ginkgo is useless for preventing cognitive decline with age, but this conclusion would be premature.
Keep in mind that 11 of 16 previously published controlled trials have shown that ginkgo increases short-term memory, concentration, and mental processing time. As well, other studies show gingko can produce modest improvements in cognitive function in people who already have Alzheimer's disease or other types of dementia.
Don't Put All Eggs in the Gingko Basket
To sum it all up, the recent Gingko study isn't the final word. But it does point out something very important about healthy brain aging: There is no magic bullet. To date, no single herb, dietary supplement, or medication has proven to significantly slow cognitive changes in those with Alzheimer's or other serious brain diseases. Herbs and medications aren't proven to prevent the mild cognitive changes that come with age either.
There is some good news in all of this, however. There may not be a magic bullet, but there are many "nearly magic" bullets. When taken together, these things actually do keep the brain healthy well into old age.
You shouldn't put all of your eggs into the ginkgo basket. If you want to try gingko, that's fine, after checking with your doctor, of course! You'll want to make sure this herb is safe for you. But there is so much more beyond any herb that you can do to boost your brain power.
Boost Your Brain Naturally
To keep your brain sharp, a multi-faceted approach is your best bet. Get started on the following plan and you just may stop misplacing those keys and forgetting your grocery list!
Focus on Heart Healthy Nutrition. What's your heart got to do with your brain? The changes that lead to heart disease can lead to brain dysfunction. If the arteries in and around your heart are clogged, chances are good those around your brain are gunked up too. There is a strong connection between heart disease and poorer mental function.
To best care for your heart and your head, focus on a plant-based diet that includes plenty of fiber. Make sure about three-fourths of your calories come from vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds. This type of diet is known to protect the heart, and fortunately, the head too.
Color Yourself Beautiful. Many of the phytonutrients that give vegetables and fruit their bright colors protect brain cells from damage as we age. These nutrients minimize oxidation, a destructive process that can kill brain cells. Oxidation speeds up with age, so a colorful diet is even more important for older folks!
Fewer than 15% of us meet the minimum 5-a-day recommendation for vegetable and fruit intake. That means fully 85% of us fail to eat enough plant foods for good brain and body health. And even fewer of us eat the 8-10 servings that research suggests will best ward off disease as we age. Make eating more of these foods a priority starting today.
Beat Back Obesity. Obesity and overweight can lead to cognitive decline because they impair the way the body and brain process nutrients. This can lead to cell-damaging inflammation and reduced blood flow in the brain.
As detailed in number 1 above, it comes back to heart - and brain - health. Obesity is one of the leading causes of heart disease in the US today. It also contributes to strokes and increased risk of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia that rob us of healthy life in older age.
Ditch the Car. While it is true that there is no magic bullet for preventing cognitive decline, exercise comes pretty close. Study after study proves that the more you move your body, the better your brain functions. Exercise increases the flow of blood and nutrients to the brain. If you fail to exercise, you are giving up one of the best possible ways to ensure that you age healthfully.
Next time you're about to hop in the car to go 10 blocks, try hoofing it instead. Dust off the bike. Walk the dog. Run around with your kids. Play tennis. Shoot hoops. It doesn't matter what you do, just that you do it. You don't need to run a marathon. You just need to move your body, for about 20-30 minutes, at a minimum, each day. More is better, but any exercise will improve your health. Period.
Engage in Mental Exercise. One of the biggest contributors to loss of brain function with age is boredom. If you don't exercise your brain regularly, it will weaken over time. Sitting in front of the TV for hours per day does more than widen your waist. It wastes your brain.
Instead, enjoy card games or crossword puzzles. Read a good book. Take up a new hobby. Knit. Build a cabinet or other piece of furniture. Play guitar. Whatever you can do to engage your brain will keep you sharp as you age.
Be a Social Butterfly. Have regular visits with family and friends. Strong social connections are an important part of healthy brain aging. Isolation and loneliness are among the leading causes of declining brain function.
Want a great way to improve not only your brain, but the brains of others? Try volunteering! You'll feel good about yourself, you'll engage with others socially, and you'll all be better for it.
References: JAMA 2009; 302:2663-2670.(1)
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, is an internationally recognized expert in nutrition, chronic disease, cancer, health and wellness as well as the Executive Editor of Nutrition Intelligence Report, a free natural health and nutrition newsletter. For more information or to sign up for a free subscription, visit http://www.appleboost.com/.