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Simple Ways to Keep Your Brain Sharp, Healthy

From a glance at the magazine stands, Americans appear obsessed with losing weight, cutting their cardiac risks and seeking to improve their odds against cancer. But where’s the focus on brain health?

The brain always has been mysterious and many people seem to believe little can be done to keep it sharp or to reduce its risk of injury and disease. Too many of us think it’s a matter of our genes or happenstance as to what occurs with memory loss, brain tumors, strokes and other disorders of the brain.

This may be true to some extent but the same might also be said of heart ills and many cancers. And while there may be familial predispositions, this doesn’t diminish the need to take steps to improve health and reduce risk.

Keith L. Black, M.D., chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute, says Americans can do more to keep their minds sharp and brains healthy even as they age. His suggestions include: the simple and obvious (wear a helmet for sports); the simple and less obvious (eat certain foods to properly fuel the brain); and the simple and more obscure (could your cell phone use affect your risk of brain tumor?).

The theme is “simple” – these are changes most people can work into their everyday lives. Examples include:

Find a puzzle and solve it. The brain appears to respond to “exercise” – challenges that help keep it nimble. Whether games and puzzles help delay onset of dementia is the subject of debate and research. But people who keep busy with activities they enjoy – knitting, learning languages, reading – seem to have less memory impairment in later years. Hard scientific evidence may yet come; keeping your mind active through “play” and activity certainly won’t hurt in the meantime.

Eat a nutrient-rich diet. Deficiencies in certain vitamins have been shown to decrease memory skills. B vitamins appear to be key for concentration and memory.

Avoid sugar spikes. Your brain cells need a steady supply of glucose (sugar) for fuel; the sugar from simple carbohydrates causes a spike and rapid decline in blood sugar levels. Energy and mental focus peak and drop fast. Instead of fast foods and simple sugars, choose fruits, whole grains and vegetables – along with a high-quality protein – to keep brain cells evenly fueled for a greater time.

Don’t jump on every food fad but pay attention to trends. No single miracle food will prevent or reverse brain disorders. There appear to be many health benefits in extracts of fruits and vegetables – particularly berries. Research finds these substances seem to reduce age-related brain cell deficits and improve cell-to-cell signaling. The best long-term brain diet includes a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids.

Drink in moderation if you must imbibe. Over time, too much of an OK thing, like alcohol consumption, can shrink brain mass and disrupt signaling chemicals in the brain, reducing memory and cognitive functions.

Stop smoking – for two reasons. Some studies find a link between cigarette smoking and brain cell damage, so to be on the safe side, don’t smoke. There’s another reason. Smoking is known to cause lung cancer and when that disease spreads, one of its favorite targets is the brain. Marijuana use, meantime, has been linked to cognitive impairment and memory deficits; it’s still hotly debated whether these changes become permanent.

If tired, nap – and try to get to bed earlier. Sleep deprivation affects the brain’s ability to store and recall memories.

If stressed, take a break. Meditate, relax or exercise. Sometimes physical activity can help clear the mind. It also improves memory by boosting brain chemicals that encourage nerve cell growth.

When participating in sports, wear a helmet, at least, and certainly take seriously every bump to your head. Learn the symptoms of a concussion; err on the side of caution.

Mind this maxim: If it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your brain. The same things that can cause heart disease and attacks – plaque buildup and arterial damage – also cause strokes. So when you watch your cholesterol, control your blood pressure and exercise for your heart, your brain benefits, too.

You’re not too young to suffer a stroke; don’t ignore symptoms. Twenty-five percent of all strokes occur in those younger than 65. Even children and young adults can suffer a stroke. Learn its symptoms; if you think it’s happening to you, call 911.

If you think you’re suffering a stroke, get help immediately. In some cases, medical intervention provided within three hours of onset can reverse a stroke’s effects. Act now and fast: Every minute counts because brain cells die every second they’re deprived of oxygen. A rapid response sometimes can mean the difference between your experiencing few or no symptoms or suffering permanent, irreversible brain damage.

Use a headset with that cell phone. Research continues to determine if radio frequency waves produced by cell phones increase the risk of brain tumors. The early studies are inconclusive, some are flawed. The effects of radio waves may become known over a long time – decades – meaning results of studies could be too late for many people chattering on cells today. Take a cautious approach: Keep your cell phone away from your head, with the speaker function or a wired headset. Even a wireless headset emits some radiofrequency waves.