Keep Your Mind Healthy With These Doctor's Tips – Hackensack Meridian Health

As a doctor — particularly one for aging adults — Gary Small, M.D., often gets asked what he recommends people do to keep their minds sharp.
Crossword puzzles?
Special diets?
“All of that is good, but if you can only do one thing, it’s exercise,” says Dr. Small, behavioral health physician-in-chief at Hackensack Meridian Health. “You don’t have to become an Olympic athlete or even a younger person to gain the benefits that make a difference. It’s never too late or too early to start protecting your mind.”
He adds that exercises featuring strength training, balance and cardiovascular fitness lead to positive benefits, like pumping nutrient-rich blood to the brain and promoting feel-good endorphins. And those benefits have time and time again been shown to improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety and even memory loss
But of course, we can do more for our brain health than just one thing, right? Beyond physical activity — which Dr. Small stresses is still the most important — here’s what else this physician says we should do.
Social media has no shortage of nutrition advice, with fad diets promising more than they can usually provide. But instead of chasing after dietary trends, Dr. Small recommends something simpler — smart and conscious eating.
First, he says, aim for a healthy weight. Part of that comes from portion control to avoid overeating, which can lead to weight gain. This is important, he says, given the links between excess body fat and depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment.
But also consider what you feed your mind and body, including good-for-you fats.
“Typical western diets emphasize omega 6 fats from red meats and milk products, but you should also aim for omega 3 fatty acids from fish, nuts and seeds,” he says. “These healthy fats provide similar anti-inflammatory benefits to exercise.”
In addition, reduce processed foods and refined sugars. They can increase your risk of diabetes, which in turn can contribute to cognitive and memory decline. 
Lastly, don’t forget those fruits and veggies
“Produce has antioxidants,” Dr. Small says. “Our bodies experience oxidative stress with aging, which causes wear and tear on cells throughout the body, including brain cells. Consuming fresh fruits and vegetables is really helpful for that.”
Brains are like muscles; they need to be exercised regularly. Games, puzzles and other mentally stimulating activities can satisfy that need with something fun and engaging.
“With mental exercise, choose things that you enjoy,” Dr. Small says.
You’ll also want to gradually intensify the exercise over time. If you’re doing a crossword, for example, maybe start with something easier and work your way up to more difficult puzzles.
“You want to find activities that engage you — that challenge you, but don’t over-challenge you,” he added.
The next time you want to cancel social plans, consider this: An 85-year-old study from Harvard tracked people for decades to find out what makes people happy. Turns out, it’s everyday relationships. Social bonds can reduce the risk of dementia, depression and anxiety, and also help you become more resilient to stress, researchers have found.
Dr. Small adds that the benefits of staying social can add up.
“I sometimes have talked about the triple threat against Alzheimer’s disease,” he says. “Take a walk with a friend, and you’re going to get aerobic exercise with all the benefits that come with that. If your friend is empathetic, it will lower your stress level because you can talk about what’s bothering you. And finally, just having conversations on interesting topics actually helps your brain cells grow and become healthier.”
Memory slips happen to everyone, but Dr. Small recommends a method to recall things better: look, snap, connect. It’s inspired by memory training techniques that have been around for centuries, which help people focus their attention and overcome distractions.
“For example, say you meet somebody named Harry and you notice he has a lot of hair,” Dr. Small says. “That cue can help you remember his name. If you can make something meaningful, it will become memorable.”
The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.  
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