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Four Things that Improve Your Brain Function

To build muscle you lift weights, and to increase endurance you do aerobic exercise. But what can you do to keep your mind in shape as you age?

Adopting certain healthy habits, such as the following activities, can help you improve and maintain your memory, reasoning and ability to learn new skills.

Get Moving In addition to increasing endurance, regular aerobic exercise is one of the most widely accepted ways to preserve your brain function and is associated with reduced risk for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, says Robert S. Wilson, PhD, neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center.

Regular exercise increases blood flow, which brings more oxygen to the brain, and also causes the brain to release endorphins that produce a sense of comfort and euphoria and ease pain. The result is enhanced concentration and memory, as well as reduced anxiety and depression.

Keep Connected You can also stay in better mental shape simply by socializing. “Any activity that keeps people connected helps, whether it’s volunteering, taking a class or just getting together with friends,” says Wilson, who co-authored a Rush study on the relationship between loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease.

Another study at Rush suggests that the larger the social network, the better the protection.

Challenge Yourself Mentally stimulating activities, such as reading a book or working on a crossword puzzle, can also help keep you sharp.

Studies suggest that people who engage in complex tasks, especially ones that require doing several things at once, have improved cognition and a lower risk of dementia, Wilson says.

Unleash the Power of Sleep Mounting scientific evidence suggests that sleep enhances learning and memory — especially acquiring new skills. This may work via powerful bursts of brain waves called sleep spindles. These spindles are thought to promote new neural connections by triggering an influx of calcium into the brain’s cortex.

Sleeping fewer than six hours can block these spindles and inhibit learning, while a full night’s sleep — seven to nine hours for an adult — can improve learning by up to 20 percent. In fact, a one-hour nap can boost learning by helping you avoid the frustration and lower performance that come from information overload, or burnout.

What’s Normal? Of course, the brain changes as we age, and nerve cells can shrink or waste away. This can lead to normal cognitive changes, such as difficulty remembering new names or doing more than one thing at a time, which shouldn’t be cause for concern. However, forgetting how to perform familiar tasks, such as preparing a meal or making a phone call, can signal a problem such as Alzheimer’s disease.

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FAST FACT: You get an extra boost from friendship when you share a laugh. Laughter stimulates the release of endorphins, much like exercise does.


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