Kick-boxing to Mozart. Yakking with your neighbour. Meditating in the sun and sleeping soundly after making love. Who knew such pleasurable activities could boost your brainpower? Contrary to the belief that we have a fixed number of brain cells that diminish over time, research over the past two decades reveals that your brain is like a renewable garden. “If you stimulate your brain, it will promote cells and put out more branches like a tree,” says Rémi Quirion, scientific director of the Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction, of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research at McGill University in Montreal. But your brain needs tending or it will grow barren as you age. Here’s how to cultivate your mind today:
Schmooze it or lose it
Make time to chat with a neighbour or confide in a friend. A University of Michigan study found that gabbing with friends, neighbours and relatives is as good for your brain as intellectual activities such as reading or learning new computer skills. “People who grow older with a rich network of family and friends tend to keep their minds sharper than those who are isolated or alone,” says Dr. Howard Chertkow, a neurologist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal and director of the Bloomfield Centre for Research in Aging at the Lady Davis Institute of McGill University. So, lighten up and take a break, because all work and no play isn’t good for your noggin.
Travel to Thailand (or make coconut-chicken soup)
People who participate in mentally challenging activities throughout their lives increase the number and strength of brain cell connections, providing a reserve capacity as you age, according to research from Harvard University in Boston. “If you have more connections to start with, you can afford to lose some before the effects become apparent,” says Carol Greenwood, senior scientist at the Toronto-based Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. No need to become a student again, though. Go to public lectures, start a chess club or travel to an exotic destination. Even processing the information in a new recipe can help keep your brain nimble. Looking for inspiration? Head to our Recipe File
Practise meditation, yoga or tai chi to reduce the toxic effect of stress on your brain. Scans conducted at the University of Wisconsin showed that Buddhist-style meditation quiets the part of the brain associated with negative emotions and boosts the feel-good zone. “Prolonged exposure to stress hormones has been related to brain shrinkage and memory problems,” says McGill neuroscientist Sonia Lupien. “Pick whatever stress-reduction method works for you.” Build 30 to 60 minutes of tranquility into your day, for example, by meditating with a CD by University of Massachusetts researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn or decompressing with quiet time. “One hour alone per day can work for everyone. I walk the dog,” says Dr. Lupien.
Get more zzz’s for brighter ideas
After waking from a sleep, the British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan.” Paul McCartney woke with “Yesterday” playing in his head. Imagine what you could do by catching up on your sleep debt. Eight hours of deep sleep each night will boost your creativity and problem-solving abilities, according to research by German scientist Jan Born. During sleep, information and memories from the day are moved from one region of the brain to another and reorganized in the process. This reshuffling allows you to see problems from a fresh perspective and create new solutions. To improve your sleep, keep your bedroom slightly cool and go to bed at similar times each night. If you’re still not getting enough shut-eye, visit the Canadian Sleep Society’s
website to find a sleep disorders clinic near you.
Put on a Barry White CD and get it on
An active sex life can breed babies and new brain cells. In experiments with adult mice, University of Calgary researcher Samuel Weiss observed that production of prolactin during mating and pregnancy prompts stem cells (primitive cells from which other cells evolve) in the brain to divide. These mature into neurons that migrate to the brain’s “smell centre” and may allow the mother to recognize and care for her offspring. “We know that in humans the act of mating increases prolactin in the bloodstream. So, it’s possible that prolactin released during sex could stimulate the growth of new brain cells,” says Weiss, noting that within five to 10 years advanced imaging technologies may allow scientists to see new brain cells being created in humans. Until then, it can’t hurt to make time for a little lovin’.
Kick your brain into shape
Jog, cycle or walk briskly to stimulate the growth of new brain cell connections that you won’t get as a couch potato. Aerobic exercise makes sedentary people “smarter,” according to studies by U.S. psychologist Arthur Kramer. Fit people also do better on complex attention-demanding tasks than their less fit counterparts. Brain scans showed that physically fit subjects had more grey matter (“smart” cells) and white matter (fibres that send signals through the brain) than those who exercised less. So, kick up your heels: just 30 minutes of salsa dancing three times a week, for instance, helps keep your brain and body young.
Beat the blues
Improving your mood with sunshine, playing with your pet or taking prescribed antidepressants can keep your memory sharp. While brain scans show that long-term depression shrinks the hippocampus, thought to be the memory region of the brain, Columbia University researchers found that antidepressants such as Prozac may reverse this effect. “When people are treated for depression with medicine or psychotherapy, their memory problems tend to decrease,” says Dr. Angela Troyer, a psychologist at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. Mood lifters range from munching on bananas to boost serotonin to seeking help from a qualified therapist.
Drop those fries and boost your IQ
Lowering cholesterol levels in women helps prevent cognitive impairment, according to a recent University of California study. “High cholesterol levels around the membranes of nerve cells in the brain keep it from working well,” says Dr. Howard Feldman, head of the University of British Columbia’s neurology division. “A balanced diet without excess cholesterol is good for the heart and brain.” High blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, obesity and inactivity are also risk factors for stroke, linked to cognitive impairment and dementia, says Dr. Feldman. So, skip foods high in sodium and saturated and trans fats, and ask your doctor or a registered dietitian for advice if you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Listen to Mozart
College students who listened to the sweet strains of Mozart’s “Sonata for Two Pianos in D” performed better afterwards on tasks measuring the ability to manipulate complex mental images than those who didn’t, according to a University of California at Irvine study. Other research demonstrates that music training boosts vocabulary, learning and memory in children. Playing, singing or listening to your favourite tunes will get your brain cells dancing to a faster beat.
Dig into a fruit cocktail
Start your day with fresh fruit, yogurt and whole grain bread or cereal. Complex carbohydrates in this breakfast of champions provide essential B vitamins and a steady supply of slow-release energy to the brain, while antioxidants in the produce help keep your brain cells from rusting out. Eggs are also a rich source of memory-boosting choline. “It’s as important for adults as it is for children to eat a healthy breakfast,” says Greenwood. She believes that fad diets high in fat and protein and low in complex carbs may be bad for your brain. But does it matter whether you get complex carbs and antioxidants from eating blueberries or bananas rather than peaches, spinach or broccoli? “The fruit cocktail is best. Buy a variety of fruit and vegetables to suit your preferences,” says Greenwood.
What experts say