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Keeping Your Mind Active

Oct 23, 2007

Researchers have concluded that your diet does play a role in preserving your mental function as you age, and so do health conditions. Dr. Sheri Colberg, author of The 7 Step Diabetes Fitness Plan: Living Well and Being Fit with Diabetes, has found that diabetes can also affect mental function. Read Keeping Your Mind Active to learn what you can do to help your patients.

SheriKeeping Your Mind Active


By Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM

Food, lifestyle, and your mental ability
Not only can your choice of foods affect your emotions, it can also affect your mental capacity to reason, remember, and function in general. For years, foods such as blueberries have been studied to determine if you’re less likely to develop either dementia or Alzheimer’s disease if you consume more of them. Researchers have concluded that your diet does play a role in preserving your mental function as you age, but that so do other health conditions.

If you are overweight now or were overweight or obese in middle age, you have an increased risk of developing dementia at some point in your life. Moreover, by having insulin resistance and diabetes, you also run a much higher risk of experiencing mental decline due to either Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. One potential cause is plaque formation in the arteries that feed your brain; strokes, which are usually the result of brain ischemia caused by carotid artery blockage, are also a common complication of diabetes and one that can dramatically alter your cognitive abilities. However, there also appears to be a link between declining nerve function in your brain, systemic inflammation, and oxidative damage caused by free radicals that is just beginning to be better understood. Have you caught on to the recurring theme of inflammation being associated with chronic diseases yet?

Fight back by keeping your mind active

The good news is that you can prevent some of this potential loss of memory and mental functioning over time. All you need to do is eat better, exercise more, control your diabetes, smoke less, and–equally important–frequently exercise your mind with challenging endeavors. Whether that means that you finally take that class to learn Italian, hit the crossword puzzles hard, enter a chess competition, practice memory exercises, burn up the dance floor during dance lessons, or do daily mental “gymnastics” of your choosing to challenge your brain, the positive effects will be the same. It’s now clear that if you’re mentally active throughout your lifetime, you will be significantly less likely to suffer from a decline in your mental capacity in your later years. In general, people who are more educated, have more intellectually challenging jobs, and engage in more mentally stimulating activities, such as attending lectures and plays, reading, playing chess, and doing hobbies, are much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Even if you have the feeling your mental processes are already on the decline, you can still reverse the trend. Elderly people who go through training to sharpen their wits, for example, score much better on thinking tests for years afterward, and even the minds of younger people who drill their memories seem to work more efficiently.

Scientists suspect that a lifetime of thinking a lot may create a cognitive reserve, a reservoir of brain power that you can draw upon even if you suffer a damaging silent stroke or protein deposits, which are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. You will likely benefit most from engaging in a rich diversity of stimulating activities. New experiences may be far more important than repeating the same task over and over; try combining mental stimulation with social interaction for the greatest benefits. Most of all, you should enjoy the activities that you choose to take part in, because stress and other negative emotions appear to be harmful to your mental abilities (not to mention your blood glucose control). Even relaxation techniques (like the RIB Principle discussed in the last column) may benefit your mental functioning for that reason.

Some sample mental exercises for a healthier mind

  • Try to memorize any sort of list, and at the end of the day, try to recall as many of the items as you can.
  • Pick an object each day to observe and then draw (to stimulate your short-term memory).
  • Take a sentence from something you are reading and try to make other sentences using the same words, but in a different order.
  • Try playing challenging card or board games that require mental reasoning, such as pinochle, bridge, chess, or checkers.
  • Find new games and interests, as well as different activities and partners for your chosen games and activities.
  • Listen to or read the news and later on try to write down a summary of all that you heard (main points only).
  • Read challenging articles and books, including non-fiction, fiction, poetry, classic literature, and more.
  • Try to do something new or unusual every day that requires you to think.
  • Learn a new language, either on your own or by taking a class.

Tip of the Day: Exercising both your mind and your body with daily exercises for each can keep your mental status sharper. Do both daily (and varied) mental and physical activity for optimal mental sharpness and physical fitness.

These mental exercises were excerpted from my upcoming book on aging, The Science of Staying Young (co-authored by John E. Morley, MD), available in December 2007. Check my Web site (www.shericolberg.com) for more details. In addition, watch for the upcoming (October 28, 2007) release of my other new book for anyone with diabetes: 50 Secrets of the Longest Living People with Diabetes by Sheri Colberg, PhD, and Steven V. Edelman, MD.