National Edition

Braintaining : Lifelong feeding and care of an agile, healthy mind

Published: Tuesday, July 2 2013 4:40 p.m. MDT

Helen Mendes Love, 78, from Humble, Texas, knows stress and anxiety are bad for the brain. "Instead of worrying about money, or my health is going to be bad, I pray and trust God, and that puts less stress on my brain." Research confirms that approach. Prayer and meditation have significant stress-reducing properties, helping the brain.

She taught social work at the University of Southern California and directed social work for undergrads at Pepperdine and knows memory is enhanced when you care about what you need to remember, she said. She eats well for health and to show respect for God. When she reads about a problem, she considers how she can address it. She could not help the children massacred in Newtown, Conn., or the young man who killed them, by all accounts a disturbed, isolated person. She challenged her seniors church group to identify people in their environment who appear lonely and think through how to help them.

"When we are engaged with others, we stay more involved in life, and that affects our brain." She watches "Jeopardy" with her husband. If there's a TV whodunit, they debate who committed the crime. She learned French and some Spanish as a brain exercise, too. That helps when she travels — and travel is brain-friendly, too.

Mental muscle

Fernandez said he would bypass supplements and focus on building neurons. Forceful exercise, like fast walking and climbing stairs, all enhance the rate at which neurons form.

Then, they must be stimulated or they'll die. The key is mental and physical exercise that brings into play elements of novelty, variety and challenge. With that, neurons can survive for years, Fernandez said.

While stress can boost alertness and focus, too much thwarts neuron creation. If you're stressed for the 10 minutes each day it takes to get the kids off to school, it's no big deal. If you are stressed for weeks and months, it damages the brain. Taking a memory class will be much less helpful than learning meditations or yoga or biofeedback to regulate stress, Fernandez said.

While scientists search for a cure for degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer's, people can improve outcomes now. Learn new things. If they're hard, great. If you have no aptitude, keep working on it, experts said. The struggle may offer the greatest benefit.

Fernandez emphasized that lifestyle has more impact than genetics. Stay challenged, look for novelty and choose diverse activities. Your brain will thank you.

EMAIL: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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