4 ways to maintain your brain

Many people want to build up some "insurance" against dementia and other memory problems. But there's no need to invest in pricey brain-training programs. Instead, do-it-yourself lifestyle changes have been shown to help ward off memory loss and dementia, reports the February 2015 Harvard Women's Health Watch. The following strategies lead the list:

Exercise. "The best evidence so far is for aerobic exercise and physical fitness," says Dr. Bradford Dickerson, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. Scores of studies and clinical trials have linked regular aerobic exercise to a reduced risk of dementia. A few brain imaging studies have even shown that aerobic exercise increases brain mass and improves reasoning ability. The best exercise "dose" is 30 minutes or more per day, five times a week.

Eat well. The Mediterranean diet — high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; moderate in olive oil, unsaturated fats, lean protein (poultry, fish, beans, and nuts), cheese, yogurt, and wine; and low in red meat — has been a mainstay of cardiac prevention for almost 20 years. It has also been linked to a reduced risk of dementia. The closer people follow this type of heart-healthy diet, the lower the risk.

Stay connected. Being part of a social network also appears to reduce the risk of dementia. The variety in a person's social network and the satisfaction he or she gets from social contacts is more important than the size of the network.

Keep mentally active. The "use it or lose it" principle appears to apply to brain health. Mental stimulation, like playing a musical instrument, learning another language, volunteering, or engaging in hobbies, offers greater benefits than repetitive exercises like crossword puzzles. Although "brain-training" programs are a multi-million-dollar industry, there is no conclusive evidence that any of them improves memory or reasoning ability. "We don't know whether playing brain games is helpful," Dr. Dickerson says. "Getting together with family and friends to play cards may be as good."

Read the full-length article: "The 4 best ways to maintain your brain"