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November 2002 Issue
Do you want a sharper mind?
by Michael Fick
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Some people are born with naturally better brains. Childhood nurturing can help or hurt the brain's development. Later, some people study harder or read more than others. Some retain more facts and ideas and/or simply think more clearly. Ultimately our brains decline with age along with the rest of our bodies, some more than others. Thus we all differ in our apparent brain power throughout our lives, no matter how it's measured.

Could you have gotten a scholarship or that foreman's job if you were just a little smarter, or married that gorgeous doctor if you were just a little wittier or smarter? How often have you forgotten an acquaintance's name, a punch line, or even where you live? Does it happen more often as you approach middle or old age?

All other things being equal, more brain power is better, simply because it's so useful. We function better with it - better grades, better jobs, greater income, greater ability to solve problems, greater recollection of useful data, slower decline in brain function as we get really old. Dramatic loss of mental function, whether simply becoming eccentric or succumbing to Alzheimer's or some other devastating dementia, is not a natural product of our normal lifespan. There are ways both to elevate and to depress our brain power throughout our lives. Let's look at some of the effective, ineffective, and harmful things people can do to their brains.

They generally fall into three categories:

  • diet,
  • supplements, and
  • behavior.
We control all three, so we have some measurable impact on our own brain power from grade school on. Parents could have some impact on their children's lifelong brain power beginning almost with that post-conception cigarette. Homo sapiens should be able to remain sharp for more than 60 years, with only moderate decline during the following 20, and we can usually influence those numbers for better or worse throughout our lives.

Pound for pound, our brains burn calories 20 times faster than the rest of our bodies. Even while we sleep, our still-active brains burn and deplete calories. Our brains insist that all their energy comes from high-quality carbohydrates. A sound breakfast is thus one of the most simple, effective, and pleasant ways to achieve and maintain clarity through the morning. It doesn't have to be a big meal, but it does need to include fruit, whole grains, and protein. A bagel is just sugar by the time it hits our bloodstream, thus doesn't qualify, but whole wheat toast with peanut butter, a fruit, and a glass of low-fat milk is a great brain sharpener. [I expanded that idea and simply eat what most people call supper every morning. I haven't seen that after-lunch brain fade (i.e. bumped my nose on my desk) since the day I switched breakfast and supper nearly 20 years ago.] Small meals and snacks feed the brain, while a big meal starves it by diverting its blood flow to the digestive system. Snack and graze all day, rather than pigging out in the evening, for a long list of improvements including increased mental clarity.

There's no point in even discussing the most obvious brain-power killers. Drugs -- alcohol, nicotine, pot, and worse -- harm our brains, beginning many months before we're born if our mothers imbibe. Let's concentrate instead on the proven brain power boosters - a sound diet and a physically active life - which are very familiar to regular readers of this column.

By every measure, from test performance to brain dissection, lifetime exercisers maintain better brain function than sedentary people. Specifically, fitter old people maintain better brain volume and function in brain areas associated with memory and a broad range of skills including planning, multitasking, and execution of complex tasks quickly and efficiently under pressure ... in other words, real life. This doesn't come with occasional gardening and vacuuming; it comes with sessions of at least 30 continuous minutes of aerobic exercise and strength training - both of them independently and measurably important -- three days a week. That could include anything from brisk half-hour walks to any aerobic sport we enjoy, plus some weight lifting if our sport doesn't include strenuous muscle exertion. Mental exercise, including solving puzzles and discussing, reading, and writing about challenging subjects, is proven to sharpen our minds.

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