I’ve noticed that as we reach menopause, we increasingly complain about our brain’s ability to think. “I just can’t remember like I used to,” someone will usually say, with others offering a resounding “Amen” in reply. But does reaching middle age (and older) mean that our brain power has to shrink?
The answer: Not necessarily. That’s the good news coming from Midlife in the United States (MIDUS): A National Longitudinal Study of Health and Well-Being, which was funded by the National Institute on Aging. The MIDUS researchers did a telephone interview in order to study the cognitive abilities of 4,000 Americans ages 32-84. This study assessed thinking speed, reasoning, memory for numbers, and executive function.
The researchers found that age doesn’t necessary slow down one’s brain; in fact, some older adults actually performed as well as younger adults on certain tests. However, older adults did take longer to complete the assessments in general. The study also found that participants who had higher levels of education did better on the assessments than those who had less education.
Noting that wide variation exists in how much mental functioning declines with age, the researchers suggested that six lifestyle factors are associated with older people who did as well as younger adults. These six factors are:
- Challenge your brain. The researchers found that participants who had less education but who frequently took part in mentally challenging activities (reading, writing, and word games) displayed faster reaction times on tests that required them to switch mental tasks. Furthermore, participants who had less education actually score as well as highly educated people who weren’t mentally engaged. Additionally, participants who used the computer less often displayed greater difficulty changing between mental tasks.
- Exercise. MIDUS researchers found that frequent moderate or vigorous exercise strengthened the brain’s function for middle-age participants and was even more helpful for older study participants.
- Socialize. The researchers found that the study participants who had better mental functioning were those who interacted more with family, volunteered more or attended more monthly meetings.
- Remain in school. Participants who earned college degrees actually performed at the same speed as participants who were younger who did not have a college education. The researchers found that college-educated people appear 10 years younger mentally.
- Ease stress. The researchers found that higher levels of stress were linked to poorer memory and more distracting thoughts. However, those participants who could remain calm under stress had higher levels of mental ability. Sleep-time also is a critical time to ease stress since researchers found that participants who couldn’t unwind from the day’s problems had higher levels of cortisol when they went to bed; this finding was associated with lower mental performance.
- Remain confident. Participants who believed they were in control of their lives performed better mentally, even if they had less education. Although study participants said they felt their sense of control declining with age and the number of obstacles face increasing, those who had better mental functioning said they actually faced fewer obstacles as they got older.
In addition, the February/March 2012 issue of AARP The Magazine suggests a few more ways that you can protect your brain.
- Take your vitamins. A vitamin deficit of vitamin B12 may result in a smaller brain and lower scores on tests measuring thinking, reasoning and memory. Therefore, don’t assume that you get all the vitamins and nutrients from your diet; instead, pop a multi-vitamin to ensure that you do.
- Eat a Mediterranean diet. This diet, which is loaded with vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and fish, can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s by almost 50 percent.
- Use spices in your meals. A variety of herbs and spices are high in antioxidants that boost the brain. Especially try turmeric (which has the ingredient curcumin), black pepper, cinnamon, oregano, basil, parsley, ginger and vanilla.
- Stay healthy. Chronic health issues actually can up your chances of getting dementia. These health issues include diabetes, obesity and hypertension.
- Work toward goals. Having goals for your life and working toward them may help you stave off Alzheimer’s disease.
So don’t believe that your brain has to go downhill when you reach menopause and middle-age. Embrace some of the ideas above and you can keep your brain revving at full speed!
Published On: March 13, 2012