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Mr. Norris, how do you keep your brain fit? – “Mindful in Mililani,” Mililani Town, Hawaii

Use it or lose it. It’s a saying often used of our bodies, but it’s even more true with our brains.

As we age, we naturally lose some speed in our mental response. But “senior moments,” as we call them, can be seldom moments if we are mindful that the mind is like a muscle that needs to be fed, exercised and relaxed.

Here are seven ways to keep your brain sharp and fit:

1) Play mental games. There’s nothing better than having fun while exercising your brain. Whether it be Scrabble, crossword puzzles, “Jeopardy,” brainteasers or some online mental competition, do what captivates your cranium.

2) Read. Now, there’s a new idea. Whether you use a Kindle, an iPad or what I do – the old-fashioned codex format (book) – find a subject you love, and just read about it. Researchers at Washington University discovered that reading is one of the best exercises for your brain, lighting it up “like a Christmas tree” under functional magnetic resonance imaging. Reading helps to increase not only vocabulary and critical thinking skills but also experiential reflection, engaging the reader on different life levels. And learning inhibits mental debilitation.

3) Resolve conflict; don’t ignore it. Stuffing anything solves nothing, according to recent studies. “Relationships have important influences on how we feel on a daily basis, especially the problems in our relationships,” said researcher Kira Birditt of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan. “How we deal with problems affects our daily well-being.” Avoiding conflict not only leads to frustration but also can hinder future decision-making. Wesley Moons – a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara – and his colleague Diane Mackie reported in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that even heated discussions help people focus on the things that matter most and improve decision-making.

4) Get physical. Whether you run, walk the dog, do yoga, do martial arts or just work in the yard, increasing physical activity can increase brain activity. Dr. Elizabeth Edgerly, spokeswoman for the Alzheimer’s Association, said: “When you exercise, you release chemicals that are good for your brain. It’s like a mini fountain of youth in your brain, and the only way you can get it is exercise.” In healthy adults, the hippocampus – a brain component important to the formation of memories – begins to atrophy at age 55 or so. In a study published in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers studied people in their 60s who started walking for 40 minutes three times a week, and they discovered that after only one year, their hippocampi increased in volume by about 2 percent on average.

5) Adopt a brain-healthy diet. Eating well is critical for not only your heart but also your brain. Dr. David Katz, the director and founder of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, in his article “Dementia: Defense, not Destiny,” concluded: “Fish consumption appears to protect brain function, most likely by contributing omega-3 fatty acids to the diet. … Antioxidants in food appear to be protective as well, contributing to the reputations of blueberries, red wine and green tea. … Lower your risk of Alzheimer’s with plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans and lentils, olives and avocado, nuts and seeds. Limit consumption of highly processed foods, fast foods, sugar, salt, saturated and trans fat.”

6) Remain socially active. Though many of us fight this tendency, we humans are social beings and need one another. And that innate quality endowed by our Creator aids our mental health and well-being, as well. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that in a study of “800 men and women aged 75 and older, those who were more physically active, more mentally active or more socially engaged had a lower risk for developing dementia. And those who combined these activities did even better. Other research found that sports, cultural activities, emotional support and close personal relationships together appear to have a protective effect against dementia.” So stay socially engaged, especially in activities that stimulate your mind and body. Attend and volunteer in church and community groups. Join bridge clubs, square dancing clubs or other social groups. May I also respectfully say here that I’m very skeptical that online social networks can provide what we need in lieu of real human contact.

7) Slow down and smell the coffee. Turn it off. Not the television, but your brain. Repeated scientific studies and our own sleep deprivation have clearly proved that our brains perform best (including with memory and managing stress) when we provide them with adequate sleep and rest. Again, Katz has a wise word here: “There is some evidence that poorly controlled stress, lack of sleep and various nutrient deficiencies – vitamin E, vitamin C, and vitamins B12 and B6 in particular – may increase the risk of dementia. Controlling stress, getting adequate sleep and a balanced diet with or without a multi-nutrient supplement may all confer protection.” So get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. Take breaks throughout the day. Rest completely one day a week. And get away for regular weekend and vacation breaks. In 2008, researchers reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that even stress-related genes relaxed around the aroma of coffee. So quit stressing; slow down and smell the coffee!

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