7 Things We Can Do To Protect and Enhance the Aging Brain

As women over 60, we can’t ignore the fact that age is taking a toll on our brains. Words and names become more elusive. Misplaced items become more common. Our friends start repeating things they told us just days ago.

So what can we older women do to protect or improve our brain function? Plenty, according to Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, natural storyteller and the author of Brain Rules for Aging Well. He shares his scientifically-supported insights with Margaret Manning in today’s delightfully tongue-in-cheek video interview.

The Usual Suspects: Diet and Exercise

After an extensive review of the scientific
data, Dr. John is convinced that a Mediterranean diet is the only truly
brain-healthy one. As he puts it, “Eat sparingly, plant-based foods.” Chow down
on fresh veggies, fruits and nuts. Get your proteins from fish or chicken and
your fat from olive oil.

Don’t, however, marry this or any diet; it’s fine to cheat once in a while. In fact, cheating may be essential for your emotional well-being. Who sticks with a diet of constant deprivation?

As to exercise, forget everything you’ve heard
about the brain benefits of strengthening exercise. Stick with moderate aerobic
activity, such as brisk walking. Think 5,000 steps per day for brain health;
double that for weight loss.

Decentering Techniques

Decentering is the practice of shifting your
focus to somebody else’s world so that you can stop thinking about the problems
in your own. To significantly reduce your risk of all-cause mortality, try
decentering through one or more of the following techniques:

Sitting Down with a Good Book

Reading first-rate literature in the form of
paper, audio or single-use e-reader books is a most pleasant ways to decenter.
But it has to be exceptional literature!

Think J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and the 1960’s
Congo or Howard Spring’s These Lovers
Fled Away
and post World War I Cornwall

The richer its visual descriptions and
character development, the stronger its decentering effects are. Spending just
30 minutes a day engrossed in a book lowers your risk of mortality from all causes,
including cancer and cardiovascular disease, by 23 percent.

Going Dancing

As an all-around brain booster, ballroom
dancing is hard to top. First, it’s terrific aerobic exercise. Second, it provides
a decentering social interaction complete with non-exploitive touch.

 In Dr.
Medina’s experience, skilled-care facility residents long for both. Without
them, they feel invisible.

Finally, the coordinated movements of ballroom
dancing improve your vestibular function. It’s what controls balance — and
research associates a 37-percent reduction in falls with regular dancing!

Arguing with Someone You Trust

Think back to the delightful
1958 film Gigi and this musical
exchange between Maurice Chevalier’s Honore and Hermione Gingold’s Mamita:

We met at nine

 We met at eight

 I was on time

No, you were late

 Ah, yes, I remember it well!

We dined with

 We dined alone

 A tenor sang

 A baritone

 Ah, yes, I remember it well…

They didn’t realize it, but Honore, Mamita or
both were suffering episodic memory lapses. We’ve all had episodes — usually
involving other people — etched in our memories down to the smallest detail.
But our ability to retain them erodes with age.

To preserve episodic memory function, Dr.
Medina recommends engaging in friendly but heated arguments. Let someone you trust
challenge your assumptions and question your biases, while you leave your world
and attempt to understand a different point of view.

 In one
study group, this “productive engagement” technique improved episodic memory
function by 600%! But be careful to reserve it for the people closest to you. Casual
relationships might fail under the strain!

Feeling and Sharing Gratitude

When you concentrate on what you’re thankful
for instead of what bothers you, you’re decentering. If things aren’t going
well, Dr. Medina advises, simply write down three things that make you grateful.
Perhaps start a journal and record them at the end of each day.

To magnify its impact, share your gratitude! Are there
deserving people in your life to whom you have never expressed your thanks? Then
do so in detail with handwritten letters.

Even better, deliver and read the letters to the recipients face-to-face.
If that’s not possible, use the phone or Skype. Letting these people know you cherish
them can improve your brain function for up to a year!

Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the technique of focusing your brain on the present moment. As
a form of decentering, it’s a top-notch stress reducer. And prolonged stress,
as we know, invites a host of other problems!

For a deep dive into the art of mindfulness,
Dr. Medina recommends the Robert Teasdale’s eight-week online course, The Mindful Way. Available through
Amazon, the research-verified program teaches you to control your release of
the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. (That’s epinephrine to American

Mindfulness reduces your risks of cancer,
cardiovascular problems and depression or anxiety. That’s an enormous payoff
for simply learning to focus on things like raisins!

Which of
Dr. Medina’s’ rules for aging well are you already practicing? And what other
brain-protecting rules do you follow? Please share them in the conversation!