The evidence: Two recent studies revealed that senior citizens whose bloodstreams had higher levels of certain types of omega-3 fatty acids, nutrients that are abundant in fatty fish, demonstrated fewer signs of cognitive decline than did those with lower levels. They performed better on problem-solving and multitasking tests, too. In one study, subjects with lower levels of omega-3s also had smaller brains—a sign that omega-3s may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, a condition characterized by brain shrinkage, says Zaldy S. Tan, M.D., the medical director of the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Care Program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
How to do it: Fatty fish with dark flesh (such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies, herring, lake trout, and albacore tuna) tend to contain more omega-3s than fish with light flesh. Consume two four-ounce servings a week, says Tammy Scott, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, in Boston. If you don’t eat fish, consider taking a daily fish-oil supplement that provides a total of 250 milligrams of EPA and DHA, the two types of omega-3s that have been shown to protect brain health.
2 of 5Brian Henn
The evidence: Researchers tracking more than 1,400 adults for 21 years (most were around age 50 when the study began) reported in 2009 that avid coffee drinking is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. Two possible reasons: Coffee contains magnesium, which decreases the chances of type 2 diabetes, an illness correlated with dementia. And a cup of joe is loaded with antioxidants, which help protect brain cells from free-radical damage.
How to do it: Any caffeinated coffee works (even instant) but skip the decaf; it may not have the same brain-boosting qualities as regular. Three to five cups a day seems to be the sweet spot. Study subjects who drank that much decreased their chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by 65 percent, compared with subjects who drank zero to two cups. Just be sure to gulp your last cup before 2 p.m. After that, you might end up disrupting your sleep, another healthy habit that boosts brain function.
3 of 5Jens Mortensen
The evidence: Taking a walk a few times each week can increase the volume of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for long-term memory, by 2 percent each year, according to a 2011 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. That’s a significant gain, given that the hippocampus in older adults typically shrinks by 1 to 2 percent a year.
How to do it: Regular strolls can prevent brain changes associated with higher risks of dementia. Walk for at least 40 minutes three times a week, and stick with it. In a 2010 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, researchers examined the brains of senior citizens who had adopted walking routines and found little change after six months, but they observed increased connectivity between brain cells after a full year.
4 of 5iStock/Getty Images
Learn a New Language
The evidence: In an Annals of Neurology study published this year, bilingual elderly adults whose native language was English scored higher in reading-comprehension and intelligence tests than did their monolingual peers, even if they had had lower intelligence-test scores back when they were 11 years old. It didn’t matter whether they had learned the second language as kids or later in life; almost everyone in the bilingual group reaped the same cognitive gains. While it’s unclear why, research suggests that learning a new language might create new neuron-to-neuron pathways in the brain.
How to do it: No need to enroll in a pricey program. Learn free online (try livemocha.com), or download podcasts (such as those at radiolingua.com), then practice at a language-exchange meet-up. While some research suggests that intensive courses and fluency offer best results (perhaps by enhancing the size of certain brain areas), even a basic knowledge of a second language can keep you sharp. You can also hit the (foreign) books to expand your brain, literally.
5 of 5Brian Henn
The evidence: Daily practice of meditation and other mindfulness techniques increases the volume of gray matter in the hippocampus. “More gray matter is often associated with enhanced brain function,” says Sara Lazar, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the lead author of a 2011 study on the topic published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging.
How to do it: Get Zen for 30 to 40 minutes a day. Too long for you? Shorter periods may also build up benefits over time. (Find instructions for a five-minute session at realsimple.com/meditation.)