Super Smarts: Ten ways to maintain your brain

Feeling a little foggy? Part of the problem may be your lifestyle. Stress, dieting, lack of exercise, drinking soda, even using the wrong kind of deodorant or cookware can lead to brain drain. And simply getting older makes us less sharp. With age, essential fuels aren’t delivered to brain cells, and the cells themselves begin to deteriorate. The good news: you can combat mental fuzzies and keep your mind sharp well into your senior years. Ready to get smart? Try these tips for boosting brain power.

  1. Feed your head, with whole, unprocessed foods that are free of brain-depleting chemicals. In one study of a million school-aged children, when sugar, food colorings and preservatives were eliminated from their school lunches, they scored considerably higher on tests . What to emphasize: lots of fruits and veggies, which keep brain blood vessels open, block neuron-damaging free radicals and protect DNA. In addition, focus on omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon, walnuts and flax seeds, to keep brain cell walls pliable for reception and transmission of stimuli. And avoid restrictive weight-loss diets which quickly deplete the body of iron, a key nutrient for optimal mental functioning.
  2. Get the lead out. Lead, mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals, found in dental fillings, tuna fish, tobacco, tap water and some canned foods, can damage the brain. Equally toxic to the nervous system are pesticides and solvents, found in paint, glue, gasoline and dry-cleaning fluids. To protect your brain, minimize your use of products that contain heavy metals or solvents, use only non-toxic pesticides (check out, emphasize unprocessed, organic foods and stick to bottled water. If you think you’ve been exposed, MSM supplements and milk thistle herb are thought to help remove heavy metals from the body. Or try taking 2000 mg of vitamin C and 60 mg of zinc per day: in one study, the combination significantly reduced blood levels of lead.
  3. Flex your mental muscles. The brain functions better when it’s exercised. Both parts of brain nerves–dendrites and axons–wither with age and disuse. Research shows that continued problem solving expands the tree-like dendrites to create new connections and new networks of nerve connections. But once skills become rote, move on to new activities. Routine causes axons and dendrites to shrink again. Some of the best ways to train your brain: read challenging books, do crossword puzzles, memorize poems, learn a foreign language, play chess.
  4. Move it. Moving increases circulation and encourages deep breathing, boosting blood flow and oxygen to the brain. Some studies have suggested that physical activity reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s. One of the best brain-building forms of exercise is dancing. You have to think about moves, patterns, and steps, so you’re challenging your mind and sharpening your mental powers and memory. Dancing also stimulates the brain to make more dendrites, little bridges between brain cells that keep they brain young and active. For the biggest brain boosters, try tap, tango, ballet, line dancing and ballroom dancing.
  5. Drink wine. Good news: a little liquor may help protect the brain and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. While no study has identified one type of alcohol as better than others, red wine has the added benefit of containing antioxidants, and it’s free of brain-damaging solvents found in whiskey and other liquors aged in barrels. It also contains resveratrol, a potent antioxidant that may help protect against stroke, as well as other diseases. Theoretically, beer would have the same effect, but because it’s lower in alcohol, the amount you’d have to drink to realize beneficial brain effects could leave you smart but fat. So, unless you’re sensitive to alcohol, one to two glasses of red wine a day may help protect your brain.
  6. Eat chocolate. While no scientific studies have linked chocolate-eating with increased intelligence, cocoa does contain some compounds than are beneficial to the brain, including a chemical called 1MeTIQ that may inhibit the development of Parkinson’s disease. It also contains a mood-boosting substance called phenylethylamine (PEA), antioxidants, which help to neutralize neuron-damaging free radicals, and procyanidins, compounds that can reduce the risk of strokes. These benefits, however, apply to cocoa-rich dark chocolate, not typical American milk chocolate. The best advice: nibble on super-dark chocolate (try Valrhona, Scharffen Berger or Côte d’Or), which has a greater concentration of beneficial compounds, and have no more than an ounce a day.
  7. Change your deodorant. Super-dry antiperspirants contain aluminum, which causes various kinds of damage in the brain and has been linked to Alzheimer’s. Other sources of aluminum include cooking pots, processed cheese, table salt, antacids, buffered aspirin, medicines for diarrhea, some calcium supplements and municipal water supplies. Protect your brain from cumulative and potentially damaging doses of aluminum by switching to natural, aluminum-free deodorants (natural mineral-salt crystals, available at most health food stores, are effective antiperspirants). Also, limit aluminum-containing foods and medications, use stainless steel cookware, and avoid oyster-shell calcium supplements which often contain aluminum as well as lead. As for water, call your local water supplier and ask for the yearlong aluminum levels. If the levels ever exceed 200 microcgm/liter, use a high-quality filter, or purchase bottled water.
  8. Turn on the music. Mozart, Beethoven and other classical composers can help you improve thinking and increase attention span. Classical music is constructed with layers of complex arrangements, which has been shown to stimulate circuits in the brain, improve thinking and enhance mental performance. In one study, students who listened to classical music scored higher on an IQ test. Keep a selection of classical music in your car, and tune in for at least ten minutes a day. And try learning how to play a musical instrument: studies of the brains of musicians show that the area of the brain that’s associated with processing sounds is actually larger.
  9. Chill out. Stress diminishes mental acuity in several ways. It diverts glucose–the brain’s main source of fuel–to other organs to prepare for a perceived emergency, and it limits blood flow, thereby decreasing the amount of oxygen to the brain. Even a single episode of very severe stress can cause the release of too much cortisol for the hippocampus to handle, leading to the death of neurons. Ways to bust stress: get a massage, take a nap, watch a funny movie, run around the block. And set aside fifteen minutes every morning for meditation–in one study, meditation was reported to reduce psychological distress by 44 percent.
  10. Have (a little) coffee. Low to moderate amounts of caffeine–32 to 256 mg per day–have been found in several studies to boost brain power. That’s about the amount in two cups of coffee. At those levels, caffeine can increase alertness, mood and performance, decrease reaction time, and boost attention span and ability to concentrate. And some studies suggest that coffee can reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease. With higher doses, though, mental performance starts to decrease. For maximum brain power, limit caffeine intake to two cups of coffee, and don’t forget to count caffeine in chocolate, tea and sodas.