You can't stop Alzheimer's disease, but you may be able to delay its devastating effects. A mysterious capacity called neural reserve seems to protect a few lucky AD sufferers from having any symptoms at all. These people perform normally on cognitive tests and are thought to be free of the disease. But at autopsy they are discovered to have all the brain plaques and tangles of AD. Doctors say that neural reserve?a built-in redundancy of the machinery of the brain?allowed these people to continue thinking normally, even as the disease progressed.
Scientists argue over whether this surplus capacity is the result of extra neurons, extra connections, or some other factor. But they agree that it is good to have.
So how do you get this magical protection? Some of it comes from your genes. But new research suggests that there are things you can do to add to your neural reserve.
Regular exercise, social interaction, and a healthy diet are crucial. But so is doing familiar things in unfamiliar ways. Disrupting routines can stimulate nerve cells, enhance blood flow, and increase the production of chemicals called neurotrophins that protect those precious brain cells.
The number of opportunities to inject novelty into everyday tasks is limited only by your imagination. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
1. Switch Sides Use your nondominant hand for routine activities such as brushing your teeth. Put the mouse on the other side of your computer. For an extra challenge, try buttoning your shirt one-handed. These changes recruit little-used connections in your brain.
2. Change the Scenery Rearranging a room is a good way to remap the visual and spatial networks in your brain. Or try rearranging the items in your kitchen cabinets or dresser drawers, or taking a new route to work. Even a simple change, like moving the wastepaper basket to a new spot, alters motor pathways in your brain.
3. Make Hand Signals Learning to spell using the manual alphabet will work out your motor and visual cortex at the same time. You can find illustrations of the 26 hand positions alongside the definition of "manual alphabet" in some dictionaries or online.
4. Do It Blindfolded Try familiar activities with your eyes closed. Sort coins using only your sense of touch. Savor a bowl of blueberries, focusing on your senses of smell and taste. Why blueberries? Because they contain compounds that bridge the communication gap between aging nerve cells. "Blueberries are the Dr. Phil for old neurons," says Tufts University neuroscientist James Joseph, Ph.D. "They get them talking to one another."
5. Puzzle It Out Crosswords are great for sharpening language skills, but working on your spatial intelligence with a jigsaw puzzle is more likely to activate new pathways in your brain. You don't have to do it all at once; try putting a few pieces in place a day.
6. Share Story Time Take turns reading aloud with a friend or loved one. Both reading out loud and listening promote the interaction of your brain's left and right hemispheres and activate little-used pathways. Reading silently activates a much smaller part of your mental real estate, as does watching TV together.
7. Catch a Whiff Smell is the only sense that connects directly to a part of the brain called the limbic system, which is involved in processing emotions and storing memories. That's why certain odors can make you feel nostalgic. Listening to music while burning a scented candle will build brain connections by combining two senses?hearing and smell?that don't ordinarily collaborate.
8. Report the News Describing things to others is an excellent way to improve your visual memory. Make it a goal to notice one new thing every day and then tell someone about it later. This will help you improve both attention and memory skills. It will also open your eyes to things you've never noticed before and give you the opportunity to share your discovery with another person.
9. Take a Walk Older adults who start a regular walking program improve significantly on tests of high-level "executive" functions such as planning, scheduling, and task coordination. Aerobic exercise raises levels of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which protects nerve cells from the damage caused by free radicals, boosts the number of connections between neurons, promotes the formation of new capillaries in the brain, and may even be involved in the construction of new neurons from adult stem cells. Studies that have combined strength training, such as lifting weights, with aerobic activity have yielded even greater improvement in cognitive function.
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