yoga breathing yoga breathing Yoga and meditation exercises have shown to reduce dementia risk. (Photo: Nickolya/Shutterstock)

5 ways to keep your brain young

Protect your brain from the effects of aging with our scientifically backed brain-boosting tips.

Let's face it: getting older can be a real buzzkill. Aside from the superficial changes – the balding, the graying, the wrinkling – there's that sinking feeling that our brains just aren't as sharp as they used to be.

But you don't have to shrug your shoulders and watch hopelessly as the decline sets in. There are many ways to protect your brain from the effects of aging that involve little more than an uptick in activity and nutrition. And, thanks to the wonders of 21st-century science, there are some clinically tested and highly promising remedies that could mean the end of age-related dementia as we know it. Here are a few, from the conventional to the groundbreaking.

Mediterranean diet

mediterranean diet and brain powerA Mediterranean diet combined with an increase in nuts and olive oil can help protect the brain from cognitive decline due to aging. (Photo: SMarina/Shutterstock)

The Mediterranean diet, with a focus on vegetables, protein-packed fish, olive oil, nuts, fruits and low amounts of meat and dairy, can be a crucial weapon in the difficult fight against cognitive decline, dementia and devastating diseases such as Alzheimer's, according to a 2015 study led by Dr. Emilio Ros from the Hospital Clinic at the University of Barcelona in Spain.

In the study, two groups of people were told to follow a Mediterranean diet and asked to increase their consumption of extra virgin olive oil (to five tablespoons per day) or increase their consumption of nuts (walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds). A third group was told to simply follow a low-fat diet.

In the end, the researchers found that the nuts and olive oil groups outperformed the control group on both memory tests and skills requiring quick thinking. Dr. Ros believes this force field for cognitive function likely comes from the abundance of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents found in the supplemental foods.


Cold weather (it's true!)

Jack Nicholson in "the shining"Is it cold out there, or are you just getting smarter? (Photo: Warner Bros.)

A handful of research over the years has focused on a link between exposure to cold temperatures and better alertness and ability to complete tasks. But a new study in March conducted by researchers from Stanford University and Israel's Bar-Ilan and Ben-Gurion universities went a step further. They found that mere representations of temperature – a photo of a snowy landscape, for example – can improve cognitive control. In other words, your brain works better when it's served something cold, either the real thing or an image of such.

The recent study found that cool-temperature images, compared to warm images, led to "improved performance" on tasks. Our takeaway: don't go outside in a blizzard, but do change that screensaver from beach resort to ski resort.


Cannabis

Mice have been a hallmark of laboratory science for decades. But their relationship with humans goes back a whole lot farther. (Photo: Mirko Sobotta/Shutterstock)A new study using mice could unlock many doors in the study of cannabis. (Photo: Mirko Sobotta/Shutterstock)

The research emerging on cannabis is exciting. Entire research facilities are now being dedicated to the study of this plant and its medicinal benefits, with applications in almost every area of pathology: cancer, depression, Parkinson's, arthritis, epilepsy, glaucoma and multiple sclerosis.

Now comes word of a new study from scientists in Switzerland and Israel that low doses of THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) actually healed the brains of mice from the effects of aging. We're talking a potential eternal youth serum here; researchers saw greater learning capacity and memory performance in the animals. What does this mean for humans, you're desperately wondering? As a next step, the researchers want to conduct a clinical trial to investigate whether THC also reverses aging processes in the brain in humans and can increase cognitive ability.

"Although there is a long path from mice to humans, I feel extremely positive about the prospect that THC could be used to treat dementia, for instance," said Svenja Schulze, the North-Rhine-Westphalia science minister in Switzerland who helped lead the study.


Bilingualism

boy learning how to say hello in several languagesBilingualism has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. (Photo: Creativa Images/Shutterstock)

Pretend your brain is your vacation policy at your job. What happens if you don't use it? Sure, some companies let you carry over the days to the next year, but even that has its limits. Eventually it runs out, and if you want to experience life beyond the walls of your cubicle, you have to earn more. How do you do that? By working hard, and by staying committed.

Now, where were we? Oh yes, the brain! It's your most valuable asset, and it needs regular attention and feedings. And it looooooves to learn. Don't ever think that you're finished learning, no matter how old you get. Several Alzheimer's awareness organizations recommend adding another language to your vocabulary as a fundamental way to maintain and even improve brain function as you age. Not to mention it also raises your cultural awareness and expands your horizons.


Running

Napa Valley MarathonRunners in the 2013 Kaiser Permanente Napa Valley Marathon. (Photo: Courtesy of Kaiser Permanente Napa Valley Marathon)

Running 15 miles a week could reduce your risk of Alzheimer's by 40 percent. That's according to a 2014 study from the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease that looked at more than 150,000 runners. Though the study didn't sort out exactly why this form of physical activity has such a significant impact on brain health, it did note that being active in general – yoga, cycling, swimming, dancing, competitive sports – can do wonders for Alzheimer's prevention.

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