By Dr. Paula Fellingham
Let’s talk today about How to Boost Your Brain Power.
The three building blocks of a strong brain are all body-based:
- Exercise Moving your body lubricates the machinery that orchestrates thinking. In a recent study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, older people who exercise regularly performed better on tests of memory and thinking skills and, in brain scans, had healthier looking gray matter than sedentary peers. Experience may have already taught you this connection: Have you ever been stumped by a problem only to discover the solution when you go for a walk? The brain regions responsible for physical movement – the cerebellum, primary motor cortex, frontal cortex and basal ganglia – are some of the same structures that coordinate thinking. Moreover, physical movement increases blood flow to the brain, carrying glucose and oxygen, the brain’s fuel. Animal research also suggests that exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells, spurs the production of the special chemicals that nourish existing brain cells and enhances the connections among them.
- Diet Consider blueberries, strawberries, and spinach when you’re planning menus. After aging rats with memory loss were fed pellets of these foods, their memories dramatically improved. Along with other deeply colored fruits and vegetables, these foods are rich in antioxidants, which may help protect brain cells from the damaging effects of the rampaging molecules called free radicals.
- Sleep If learning is like entering data into a computer, sleep is analogous to clicking “save.” Sleep secures memories. If you can’t get a solid eight hours a night, try napping. In one recent Harvard University study, a 60- to 90-minute nap improved volunteers’ performance on a visual perception test as well as eight hours of sleep did.
Fun Ways to Boost Your Brain Power
- Seek out novelty in brain-imaging studies, more regions of the brain are activated when a person performs an unfamiliar task than a routine one. So take in a play or a museum exhibit; visit an ethnic market, buy foods and spices you’ve never tried, and cook a meal; or learn a musical instrument (an all-around great brain exercise, according to Mark Jude Tramo, M.D., an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, because it involves almost every region of the brain).
- Use your hands Such activities as quilting, sewing, knitting, crocheting, painting, woodworking and gardening use often overlooked spatial skills and require calculations and planning (functions that are carried out in the brain’s prefrontal cortex).
- Do crossword puzzles Craig Stark, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Johns Hopkins University, says that the process of doing a typical crossword puzzle exercises most parts of the brain. The parietal lobe, which processes visual perception, is activated when you focus your attention on the problem (say, of finding a seven-letter word for brewing beer); searching for the answer engages the brain’s language center; recalling a word taps into your memory system; and checking your answer uses cognitive functions emanating from the prefrontal cortex.
- Read literature A novel with a complex plot, sophisticated use of language and three-dimensional characterizations require more brain activity than reading a romance novel with a formulaic plot.
- Shake up your routine Take a new route to work; change the seating arrangement at the dinner table; brush your teeth with the opposite hand. Your brain gets a more vigorous workout if you surprise it occasionally.
- Watch brainy television Resist sitcoms and tune in to educational programming (history, science, art) that poses questions and theories and expands your knowledge base.
- Get technical Stop relying on your teenage kids to program the VCR or work the digital camera. Dig out the owner’s manuals (a memory exercise in itself!) and figure out how these devices work.
- Take a vacation Travel is a classic way to give your brain a dose of novelty – new sights, sounds, smells, tastes. If you visit a different culture, you’ll also encounter fresh ideas and ways of looking at the world. And in navigating an unfamiliar place, you’ll exercise your brain’s spatial skills.