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Are there secrets to life-long brain power?

Brain drain

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Are there secrets to life-long brain power?

Research shows that there are. According to Dr Dharma Singh Khalsa, president and medical director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation International in Tucson, Arizona and author of Brain Longevity (1997), Meditation as Medicine (2002), and Food as Medicine (2004), "your brain needs three different kinds of exercise to thrive best". These are mental exercise, aerobic physical exercise, and mind/body exercises.

Mental effort, the so-called "hard thinking" actually stimulates brain cells to send out microscopic filaments called dendrites to establish new connections with one another. "Hard thinking" also promotes the growth of glial cells (the brain's little housekeepers) that support the metabolism of the cells that do the thinking and keep brain nerve pathways clean. Types of this form of exercise include learning to play the piano, doing cross-word puzzles, taking up a new hobby where new skills must be learned.

Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain and stimulates the release of nerve growth factor. This is a vital hormone that restores damaged neurons and boosts the levels of the brain's neurotransmitters (messenger chemicals) that the brain needs for thinking and memory. Types of this form of exercise include walking, swimming, and bike-riding.

Dr Khalsa claims that mind/body exercises are derived from ancient Eastern religious practices. "They regenerate the brain by increasing energy levels and boosting the ability to concentrate by 20 per cent or more." Types of this form of exercise include meditation, deep-breathing, and listening to meditative music.

Dr. Khalsa also suggests that the brain thrives best, if you eliminate stress. He adds: "When you're pushed - or you push yourself too hard - your brain goes into destructive overdrive. The damage that stress causes is slow and subtle, and it builds up over a lifetime. So it is essential to take steps to reduce your stress level every day."

Dr Khalsa contends that "the well-nourished brain" is a well-thriving brain too. Fat promotes brain deterioration, much as it wreaks havoc with the heart and arteries. It clogs the vessels that carry oxygen and glucose - the brain's energy fuel - to millions of neurons and produces free radicals - the highly reactive and destructive chemicals that scar and kill brain cells.

He suggests: "Keep your fat intake below 20 per cent of total calories." He further suggests the taking of vitamin E (the antioxidant), vitamin B (the energy booster), coenzyme-Q-10 (the brain cell-refueling substance), and ginko biloba (the brain blood circulation enhancing substance).

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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