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study coauthor Nikos Scarmeas, M.D.,
a neurologist at Columbia University
in New York City. First, it’s associated
with lower levels of inflammation in the
body. It could also protect the brain’s
blood vessels from damage. The diet is
also loaded with antioxidants; further
research will investigate whether these
and other compounds in the diet reduce
the formation of harmful amyloid protein
plaques in brain tissue.
Quick: What’s your blood pressure? If
you’re drawing a blank, it might be time
for a checkup. Of the 65 million Americans
believed to have hypertension, only half
realize they’re affected. If left untreated,
high blood pressure (defined as 140/90 or
higher) can raise a person’s risk of
dementia by up to 48 percent, according
to a study in the journal Neurology. One
possible reason is that hypertension impairs
blood flow to the brain, shortchanging the
organ on the nutrients and oxygen it needs
to stay vital, says Tracey Holsinger, M.D.,
a geriatric psychiatrist at Duke University.
Even people with prehypertension—a
borderline condition defined by a blood
pressure reading of 120–139/80–89—tend
to show more evidence of injury to the
brain, she says.
To stay healthy, get your blood pressure
checked at least every two years (annually
if you’re hypertensive or prehypertensive).
In addition to medication, many of the
brain-boosting tips mentioned in this article
can help keep blood pressure under control.
Your doctor can help you develop a plan.
When stress strikes, the brain pumps out
cortisol and other fight-or-flight hormones,
which can short-circuit the memory-making
process. That explains why people often
have little recollection of white-knuckle
experiences, such as public speaking. Over
time, however, continuous exposure to
stress hormones sets the stage for serious
problems. A number of large studies have
found that people with chronically high
stress levels are up to three times more
likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than
their less-anxious counterparts.
You can’t always avoid tense situations,
but you can control how you respond
to stress. Step one is to recognize the
symptoms: Headache, muscle tension,
irritability, impatience, and stomach upset
are among the more common. If you find
yourself feeling on edge, try taking a few
deep breaths, stepping outside for fresh
air, or chatting with a sympathetic friend.
Research shows that simple soothing
acts can interrupt the cascade of stress
hormones and relax the mind and body.
For longer-lasting stress protection,
consider yoga or meditation. In one study,
people who meditated regularly were less
anxious and exhibited greater activity in the
brain region associated with memory than
people in a control group. Here’s a beginner
meditation exercise from Giuseppe Pagnoni,
Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the University of
Modena and Reggio Emilia in Modena, Italy:
Sit cross-legged on the floor with your back
straight. Gaze at a spot a few feet in front of
you, breathing slowly as you imagine your
mind opening and expanding. If a stressful
distraction pops into your head (Did I
remember to mail the car payment?), don’t
try to squash it; instead, allow it to drift
through your thoughts like a cloud in the
sky. Continue for 10 minutes.
If you’ve always wanted to speak French
or start a book club, consider this your
incentive to get cracking: Studies show
that people who routinely seek new
experiences, acquire new knowledge, and
engage in mentally stimulating tasks of
any kind are up to 50 percent less likely
to develop dementia than folks whose
intellectual habits are less challenging.
One possible reason is that meaningful
A steady flow of
by 50 percent.
tend to have low
levels of memory-sapping stress