Several of the activities that help you stay sharp are also good for your heart, your immune system, and your body's other machinery. In fact, a recently published study of 2,500 people ages 70 to 79 found that 30 percent of the group saw no decline in their mental performance or improved on cognitive tests over the course of eight years. And that fortunate 30 percent were more likely than the others to have some or all of these healthy traits:
- exercised at least once a week
- had at least a high-school education (or equivalent)
- did not smoke
- worked or volunteered
- lived with at least one other person
Note that most of the time, these behaviors are under our own control.
Everyone can maximize his or her brain health. Living an active life—resisting the siren call of the couch and the remote control—is your best bet for staying sharp. And here are ten more brain-boosting activities:
- Walk and talk: Find a walking partner, study a topic, and discuss it on your walks. You'll get mental stimulation, physical exercise, and social connection-the key brain strengtheners.
- Vary your routine: Try a different grocer. Join a new club. Novelty stimulates new neural connections.
- Get smart: Be a lifelong learner, and don't dabble. If you decide to study a language, sign up for as many classes as you can fit in your week.
- Play: Pick games with several levels of difficulty, to master one by one. For quicker thinking, try to beat the clock.
- De-stress: Meditation, yoga, a walk in the woods: focus your mind and relax. This may build clearer memories.
- Sleep: Your brain is active when you are asleep—it is consolidating memories from your day. Skip the late show and give your brain time to work.
- Imagine: Include creativity in your day. Paint, write a diary or novel, visit new websites, or build your own.
- Party: Socialize and make new friends. Don't be a loner—it can lull your brain into slowdown mode.
- Eat right: A diet rich in fruits and veggies, whole grains, and fish will help keep oxygen flowing to the brain.
- Watch your numbers: Work with your doctor to keep blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, and cholesterol in check.
Most important, shun gimmicks. No product can build extra brainpower instantly or effortlessly. But with challenging new habits, you can make your mind steadily sharper and stronger—now and for the rest of your life.
P. Murali Doraiswamy, M.D., is chief of biological psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center and coauthor of The Alzheimer's Action Plan. A writer on that book, Maryland freelancer Tina Adler, contributed to this article.