Insomnia does more than make you tired

In 1925, World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacher did it; so did James Garner in 1975 and Jay Leno in 1999. They drove pace cars at the Indianapolis 500. But when their pace car pulled off the track (it happens at every car race), all you-know-what broke loose. Kinda like what happens when you get your engine all revved up and forget to stick with a healthier life rhythm.

If you were to get some work, some play and plenty of sleep, you’d actually accomplish more and live longer. But most Americans eat lunch at their desk and expect to work while on vacation (is that a vacation!?), and around 20 percent suffer from an anxiety disorder. No wonder four out of 10 of you get less than seven hours of sleep a night (the recommended minimum), and 30 percent of adults have symptoms of insomnia (trouble falling or staying asleep).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that there’s an epidemic of sleep deprivation sweeping the U.S. Want an interesting new way to sleep better and relax more? Research from UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience found that a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and tai chi — the graceful, ancient Chinese form of exercise that’s known as moving meditation — reduces inflammation on a cellular level and is very effective in the battle against insomnia.

IS STRESS RUINING YOUR MEMORY?

Major Harris, quarterback at West Virginia in the late 1980s, is a college football Hall of Famer. But in a pivotal game against Penn State, as the clock was running out, Harris blanked on what play he’d called. As his entire team went left — where he’d called it — he ran right. Disaster? No. He faked out the Penn State defense, broke five tackles and made a 30-yard touchdown run.

A stress response (to anything from pressure to win to relationship woes) can knock out short- and long-term memories, but rarely is the outcome as positive as it was for Harris. For youngsters and old-timers alike, such negative responses to a stressful event can alter how the brain receives, stores or ignores incoming information.

It might be because the chemicals secreted by the neuroendocrine system in response to perceived stress alter how your brain synapses can encode information and store it for retrieval. Oversecretion of cortisol and adrenaline prunes synapses in your hippocampus (your memory area) and increases your risk for cognitive decline.

So, the next time you forget where you parked your car or what your boss told you to do, ask yourself, “Am I responding to events with more stress than I realize?” If the answer is yes: Meditate; give up stress-response habits, like eating added sugars, sleeping less and sitting around too much. You’ll remember those good times vividly.

GO FOR GREENS, GAIN BRAIN POWER

To date, 75 pro football players have spelled their last name G-R-E-E-N, notably the Cleveland Browns’ Pro Bowl halfback/fullback Ernie Green (1962-1968), who gained 3,204 yards and caught 179 passes out of the backfield in his six-year career, and the Redskins’ speedy Hall of Famer, “The Ageless Wonder” Darrell Green, who played 20 seasons from 1983-2002. But they’re not the only Greens associated with agility, stamina and longevity.

The amazing power of greens is also highlighted in a new study from Rush Medical Center in Chicago. Researchers followed more than 950 older adults, average age 81 (Ernie is now 76), for two to 10 years and discovered that folks who eat one to two daily servings of spinach, kale, mustard or collard greens have a cognitive ability that is 11 years younger than folks who skip those good-for-you leafy veggies.

The researchers also found that in addition to the lutein, folate and beta-carotene in the greens, vitamin K was a key defender of brainpower. Clearly, whatever your age, it’s a good time to make sure your diet is rich in greens and other sources of these brain-loving nutrients, such as brightly colored fruits and vegetables.

Cooking up soups, side dishes, casseroles and salads that deliver the greens will keep you playing at top form for decades to come. And toss in some omega-3-jammed walnuts.

POWER OF ASPIRIN

Corbin Bernsen, 60, known as the irascible Henry Spencer on “Psych,” is a smart guy when it comes to making sure he dodges the heart problems that run in his family: He’s been taking low-dose aspirin for more than a decade and says, “You can’t just take an aspirin and sit around and have 12 donuts and think, ‘I’m not going to have a heart attack.’”

Now there’s more good news for folks who, like Corbin, take daily low-dose aspirin: It slashes your risk for cancer! A new study reports that for folks 50-65, taking 75-325 mg aspirin daily for five to 10 years significantly reduces the risk of cancer, without causing an unacceptable risk of gastrointestinal bleeding. Women saw a 7 percent drop and men a 9 percent drop in the number of cancers.

This means taking a daily low-dose aspirin might be a smart move for everyone. The official recommendation (for heart health) has been that only folks who were trying to prevent a second heart attack should take a daily dose. This study found that eight deaths from cancer and heart disease could be prevented for every death from gastrointestinal bleeding or stroke. So talk to your doc to see if you’re a candidate.

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