Wise Up: Ways to keep your brain in shape for a lifetime

A version of this article was published in Yoga Journal in August 2010.

As the years go by and you mature, your mind continues to grow and change in positive ways. That may surprise you, because much media attention has been on what can go wrong with the brain over time, says Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Aging’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), the longest-running research of its kind.

But meanwhile, he points out, most people won’t ever fight dread diseases of the mind, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, but will simply continue to support their mellowing brains. In fact, you have plenty to look forward to, as your grey matter continually makes up for — and even improves on — youthful abilities.

That’s because the body has an intrinsic ability to compensate for losses, says Ferrucci. “While certain parts of the brain shrink as we age, other often-adjacent areas grow. As a result, you may lose some vocabulary or have a less-perfect memory, but you will improve your abilities to combine words and divergent ideas and to create new concepts.”

Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient Indian practice encompassing herbs, food, and lifestyle changes, espouses similar ideas, says Carrie Demers, M.D, medical director of the Himalayan Institute Total Health Center, in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. “As you age, something Ayurveda calls air energy increasingly pervades your body. If this energy isn’t grounded, it can affect body and mind, making you weak, senile, and ill. But if it’s stabilized by good social relationships and healthy daily routines, it contributes to a wonderful expansion of your capacities.” The result, says Demers, is that you become more creative and able to handle complex ideas as the years advance.

Ferrucci compares the human mind to the pianist Vladimir Horowitz, considered technically faultless as a young man. “When Horowitz was older, he was less perfect but understood the music so much more; as a result, he better conveyed its emotion and meaning. Similarly, you may have less cognitive skills in later life, but what you have you use more effectively.”

            Here are easy ways you can stay grounded and keep your mind performing like a virtuoso. As ancient sages and modern scientists agree, wisdom is time’s gift.

Basic training for the brain
• Regular physical activity is your most powerful weapon for protecting every aspect of health, according to Ferrucci: “Exercise’s good effects are so far-reaching, improving the nervous system and metabolism, lowering inflammation, and much more.”

• Eating right safeguards your grey matter two ways. A diet rich in whole grains, vegetables and fruits, fermented foods like miso, and plant proteins gives your nervous system the nutrients it needs for optimal function, says Demers. It’ll also help you maintain a healthy weight, which, in turn, safeguards your brain. “Obesity in earlier years seems connected to later dementia,” warns Ferrucci.

• Meaningful engagement with others — via traveling, volunteering, and more — keeps your mind in shape, too. Research tells us social activities activate brain regions that are eventually used for any necessary compensation, Ferrucci says.

Stand on your head
Long-time yoga teacher Patty Townsend, of Yoga Center Amherst, in Massachusetts, observes that headstand is the quintessential asana for keeping the mind clear, calm, and focused. “It creates a profound coordination of body and mind.”

Here’s how it works from science’s point of view: Headstand activates receptors in the neck that are part of the parasympathetic, or ‘relax and renew,’ nervous system (as opposed to the ‘fight or flight’ sympathetic nervous system), says Chris Streeter, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School, who has researched effects of yoga on the brain. “In headstand, your body tells your brain ‘everything’s ok.’ The brain responds by helping your body optimize mood and heart rate.”

One headstand now and then won’t do it, though. Townsend says the good effects come from years of practice leading up to headstand, then the continual regular practice of it.

Think this, not that
Negativity is powerful — and dangerous — warns Kayla Feder, a Berkeley, California, Aikido sensei who incorporates yoga when training her students. “If you focus on negative thoughts, they feed on themselves in what becomes a truly vicious cycle. They take over.”

Science backs her up, showing how such thinking attacks the brain. Feelings like anger, hate, and resentment produce stress, causing your adrenals to release the hormone cortisol, explains clinical psychologist Jeffrey M. Greeson, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Duke University Medical Center. The cortisol then shrinks the hippocampus, which is associated with memory and emotions, causing more negativity.

            The solution, says Feder, is to make positive thinking a habit. “Develop a pattern of telling yourself patiently: ‘Ok, that was a negative idea, let’s replace it with a positive one.’ Avoid beating yourself up about slipping into negativity, though, as you’ll make matters worse instead of better.”

Sit on a cushion
Meditation is another path to healthy, positive thinking, says Feder: “Sitting every day gives you time to be peaceful with yourself.”

Greeson confirmed meditation’s power when he analyzed many scientific papers on mindfulness practice for a 2009 article in Complementary Health Practice Review. Those who do this meditation (which he defines as cultivating nonjudgmental and compassionate awareness of the present moment) have increased electrical activity in brain areas associated with attention, concentration, and the ability to regulate emotions. Their minds are more nimble, their abilities to focus and to recall are better, and they have greater wellbeing. And that’s just the beginning. Study participants had stronger immune systems and better sleep patterns, among other physiological benefits.

Researchers have also looked into Tibetan Buddhism, Kripalu yoga, Kundalini yoga, transcendental meditation, and more, says Sara Lazar, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston. “The data on good outcomes is definitely out there, and work continues to be done.”

Welcome the sun — and the sunshine vitamin
Vitamin D — dubbed the sunshine vitamin because it’s created in our bodies when our skin is exposed to sunlight, as well as absorbed from foods — doesn’t just help metabolize calcium and keep bones strong. According to a 2009 Current Psychiatry Reports article, it also helps prevent mental illness and bolsters decision-making skills. But 90% of Americans have less in their bloodstream than they need, thanks to slathering on sunscreen, among other factors, says the CDC.

            You can pick up some Vitamin D by consuming fish oil and fatty fish such as salmon, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, you should also take it as a supplement, says Ferrucci, who calls it the one dietary add-on everyone should consume. He suggests 400 to 800 milligrams daily, depending on age and sex, of the form called D3, though he adds that some experts say the other form, D2, is also fine. Check with your practitioner for the type and amount you should take.

You can also spend time outdoors without sunscreen during non-peak hours, suggests Demers. Just 10 minutes of sunlight daily can give you the D you need, according to Natural Standard, a Somerville, Massachusetts, institute that evaluates scientific data on integrative-medicine therapies.

And if you do yoga’s sun salutation while you’re outside, you’ll do more than increase blood levels of this essential vitamin, according to Demers. “Ayurvedic tradition says that to heal we must connect with nature, which is imbued with spiritual consciousness and resides within us as well as outside us,” she says. “So, when you do the sun salutation, you’re not bowing to a fiery ball in the sky. You’re connecting its life-giving force to your inner sun, in your solar plexus, which generates mental clarity and other benefits.”

Try an Ayurvedic tonic
Brahmi is a tonic herb long used to support mind health in Ayurvedic medicine, according to Demers. Modern research, including a study in the 2006 Indian Journal of Psychiatry, confirms this ancient remedy. “Brahmi is calming, but not sedative, so inspires the flow of ideas,” says Demers.

Chyavanprash is another Ayurvedic tonic Demers recommends for its effect on over-all health, including the brain, and because it’s just plain yummy mixed into warm milk or tea or spread on a cracker. “The original recipe, devised thousands of years ago, has been lost,” she says, “but this jam always includes sweetened amla fruit [also called amlaki or Indian gooseberry], ghee, and a range of beneficial herbs.”

India’s National Botanical Research Institute found in 2007 that chyavanprash helps control aging problems including memory loss and lowered disease resistance. Its Vitamin C and other antioxidants are likely the key to its power, says a 2007 paper in the Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis.

Tonic herbs (or mixtures) are generally safe because natural materials reinforce health through complex actions that buffer each other. “Nourishing herbs are like superfoods,” Demers says. (In contrast, the pharmaceuticals most of us are most familiar with are powerful, precisely targeted molecules that act via one biochemical pathway, potentially causing side effects.) That said, Demers adds, it’s best consult a knowledgeable practitioner before starting any therapy.

Fountain of youth
What’s the secret to long-term mental clarity? Ferrucci and his BLSA colleagues are enrolling 500 extremely healthy people over age 85 in a new study that will zero in on how these folks have achieved such robust older years. “We’ll examine the perfect outcome: not just more years, but getting to your nineties while being functional, social, and enjoying all the possibilities of life,” he says.

It will take years for results to come in, but in the meantime, how should we approach all the good things we’re doing — exercising, eating right, doing our sun salutations, and more?

Ferrucci knows the answer to that question already: “Everything should be done with joy.” 

c. Stephanie Woodard.

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