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The little things that offer a big brain bonus

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We love it when life’s little things add up to something big — like socking away a few bucks every week in a vacation-club account or flossing your pearly whites before you hit the hay each night. But here’s a doozy that didn’t get the front-page attention we think it deserved: Taking care of “little” health glitches now could slash your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease later by 40 percent.

Turns out that sweating the small stuff — updating eyeglass prescriptions; clearing up skin and foot problems; getting chronic sinus infections, arthritis, leaky bladders and digestive disorders treated; even making sure dentures fit and hearing aids work — makes a huge difference. A major new Canadian study has found that each ignored problem boosts your risk for brain trouble by 3 percent. Having eight to 12 untreated little health issues boosts them by 30 percent to 40 percent. That’s large!

It’s also a shake-up, for three reasons. First, these “little things” aren’t what most of you, or us docs or even brain scientists, focus on in terms of protecting our gray matter. Second, brain benefits could be just the motivation needed if you’ve been dawdling about taking care of a small health nag. Third, this study points out a potent new way to keep what you’ve got upstairs in great working order.

Why does it work? For one thing, staying mentally active keeps your brain connections as fast as an iPad’s. When your vision and hearing are sharp, your body’s nimble and you’re not flustered by, say, bladder leaks, you’re eager to catch a new play, take a haiku class or learn Esperanto between flugelhorn lessons. But the benefits don’t come just from brain stretching.

Investing in your own get-up-and-go keeps you physically active, too, which showers your cranium with brain chemicals that encourage new links between neurons. That brings us to more brainy news: Daily activity protects your gray cells even if you’re at high risk for dementia. And even if you can’t do much; an easy walk, light housekeeping or puttering in the garden still cuts the threat by 16 percent. Do a little, and soon you can do more.

Suddenly, you’ll find that you can do some serious exercise for 20 minutes three times a week, and that yields a bonanza: a bigger hippocampus! Yep, it grows your key memory center.

Meanwhile, clearing up infections and treating arthritis stomps down inflammation that can scratch, dent and ding your arteries and brain cells.

There’s no cure (yet) for Alzheimer’s. But don’t wait. In addition to sweating the small stuff, these proven steps can protect you from this thought-robbing, YOU-erasing disease:

  • Order the walnut salad, grilled fish with couscous, fruit for dessert, then take that stroll. Cutting back on saturated fat (ice cream, butter, full-fat milk and cheese, red meat) and getting more brain-pampering omega-3s (the fish), monounsaturated fats (the nuts) and enough folate, vitamin B-12 and vitamin E (fresh produce, whole grains) could cut your Alzheimer’s risk by a serious 38 percent. Combine your healthy meal with a half-hour walk, and that number jumps to 60 percent.
  • Get serious about LDL cholesterol, blood pressure and diabetes. All three threaten the arteries that deliver oxygen-rich blood to your brain cells. Ignoring them boosts your risk for dementia by up to 46 percent. Make preventing or reversing them a mission.
  • Enjoy a second mug of coffee. Two mugs a day, or three to six small cups, could lower your risk by 67 percent. Why? Something in coffee helps protect you. What, exactly? We don’t know yet.
  • If you still smoke, call it quits. Smoking’s the worst for Alzheimer’s. A two-packs-a-day habit boosts your risk 157 percent. If you’ve tried to quit and failed, try again. North Americans, on average, require seven attempts to quit for good.
  • Pop some good fat. Your brain is 60 percent fat, half of it the type of omega-3 fatty acid we take every day: DHA. People with mild memory decline see their brains become three years younger when they take 900 mg a day for just six months.
  • Hold the mojito. Moderate drinking (one a day for women, two for men) protects your brain only to a point. If you or a loved one has signs of mild cognitive problems (memory slips, slowed thinking), it’s time to toast with sparkling cider instead of champagne. Just a couple of alcoholic beverages a week doubles dementia risk if there are signs of trouble.

The YOU Docs — Mehmet Oz, host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen of Cleveland Clinic — are the authors of “YOU: Losing Weight.” For more information go to www.RealAge.com.

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