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Of all the things you've got on your mind — work, bills, that weird, new stain on the kitchen floor — your mind probably isn't one of them. But now that you've started blanking on your own cell phone number and freezing when the ATM asks for your PIN, maybe it's time to start thinking about it. See, your brain tissue is steadily being chipped away — some of it by the natural aging process and some of it by such brain shrinkers as stress and cigarettes. Luckily, there are ways to strengthen your brainpower the way you build your abs. All it takes is a quick seven-step diet and exercise plan designed to boost your memory, attention span, and all the other things that will restore your skull-covered hard drive to its maximum power.
Brain Booster 1: Your Heart
The reason you misplace keys or can't remember what you ate 9 minutes ago? Normal aging shrinks neurons (brain cells) and drains neurotransmitters (the messengers that communicate between and among cells). But getting your heart rate up can reverse this process by increasing blood flow to the brain to improve memory and overall brain function, says Arthur Kramer, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Illinois. "We examined brain structure before and after fitness training and we found increases of brain volume in a number of areas," says Dr. Kramer, whose patients improved 10 to 15 percent on a variety of memory and attention tasks after exercise. The minimum: You can reap benefits from as little as walking 30 minutes three times a week.
Brain Booster 2: Your Back
Hauling your everyday (80-pound) shoulder bag can leave you tired. Carrying whiny kids can leave you frazzled. And both may injure your back — and your brain — in the process. A recent Northwestern University study found that people who suffered from chronic back pain lost up to 1.5 cubic centimeters (equivalent to 1 teaspoon) of gray matter per year. That's because the area of the brain that copes with the stress of the pain (the lateral prefrontal cortex, for those scoring at home) becomes depleted and dysfunctional enough to affect emotional decision-making, says A. Vania Apkarian, Ph.D., whose previous work found that patients with chronic back pain were slower decision-makers. Best way to beat back pain: build muscle in your lower back and abdominals to support the spine. Try the reverse trunk curl. Lie flat on your stomach and fold your hands under your chin. Lift your chin and chest off the floor about 3 to 6 inches. Aim for three sets of 10 to 15 repetitions three times a week.
Brain Booster 3: Your Waist
A body mass index below 25 not only means you'll look great in a bikini but that you'll be more likely to remember that you do. A recent Swedish study found that women who had a BMI of 27 (25-30 is considered overweight) were more likely to experience loss of brain tissue in the temporal lobe (that's your brain's main hub for memory function and one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer's). That's because extra fat generates more chemicals that can be toxic to your brain, says Deborah Gustafson, Ph.D., the lead study author and assistant professor at the Institute of Clinical Neuroscience in Sweden. One class of these chemicals — called free radicals — latches on to cells, disrupts the way they function, and can kill them. Aging naturally chews away at your memory, but excess fat may speed up the process. For each point your BMI increases, your risk increases 12 to 16 percent. "If you decrease your body weight, you're going to slow potential atrophy," says Dr. Gustafson, who recommends a BMI below 25.
Brain Booster 4: Apples
Eat one a day and keep your neurologist away. Researchers from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, recently discovered that animal brain cells treated with the antioxidant quercetin were able to resist damage from those brain-frying free radical cells (above). "We know that quercetin, commonly found in apples, has a great potential to protect against chronic diseases, including Alzheimer's," says Chang Lee, Ph.D., the principal study author and chair of the department of food science and technology at Cornell. Since fresh apples contain high levels of quercetin, Dr. Lee suggests that one a day may help combat neurodegenerative diseases. Other foods high in quercetin include onions, plums, and berries.
Brain Booster 5: Your Desktop Wallpaper
Set up a Kandinsky painting as your desktop wallpaper, and it's like 10 pushups for your brain every time you look at it. Researchers from the University of California at Davis found that the brain first detects recognizable patterns, such as shapes and lines, and then starts to break down new and different elements. Taking in an eyeful of complex images may ultimately help slow natural brain deterioration, says study author Scott Murray, Ph.D., a researcher at the University of Minnesota. Looking at a painting that actively engages your thoughts is far more challenging — and better — for your brain than staring out a window, which likely offers familiar views and much easier interpretation, Dr. Murray says.
Brain Booster 6: Español
Knowing how to say "Yo quiero Taco Bell" versus knowing how to order your whole meal in Spanish may mean the difference of a few brain cells. A recent study from the University College London found that bilinguals have more gray matter than monolinguals. "It appears that gray matter, which is critical for performing simple as well as complex tasks, is shaped by what we learn and by our experiences in general," says Andrea Mechelli, Ph.D., the lead study author. Even people who picked up a second language at age 35 saw an increase in gray-matter density, says Dr. Mechelli. Where to start? The easiest second language to learn is the one you're most likely to encounter; for most, that's Spanish. "Find a way to immerse yourself in situations where people are actually using that language," says Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For other ways, try community college classes, or go online to look at foreign newspapers that have illustrations to help you understand.
Brain Booster 7: The Mall
In a recent study of 1,000 participants, researchers set out to find why 75-year-old women tend to maintain better brain function than 75-year-old men. The result: they shop. That's because shopping requires more physical and mental activity than sitting around and watching golf, says Guy McKhan, M.D., study author and professor at the Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University. "They're being physically active, mentally active, and tend to see themselves as having a role to play in life," says Dr. McKhan. Deciding what to buy, for whom, and how much to spend is one way to keep your brain — and your eye for a bargain — active on weekends.