10 ways to boost your brain

November 11, 2009 (DAVIS, Calif.) They are the drivers behind your thoughts, decisions and actions, but too often, they disappear. Some say they can't remember the first day of high school. Others have trouble remembering names.

What can you do to improve your memory? The first brain booster: avoid stress. Too much triggers the release of hormones that can damage brain cells.

"It reduces memory performance. It reduces your ability to pay attention to things," said Charan Ranganath, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of California at Davis.

Number two: get enough sleep. While you rest, your brain's two memory systems -- the hippocampus and the neo-cortex -- talk to each other.

"Sleep is very, very important to consolidate information that we learned the day before," said Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D., research associate professor at the department of bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In one German study, those who slept eight hours were almost three-times as likely to solve a math problem on a quiz as those who were sleep-deprived.

Also: don't forget to exercise.

"Exercise has been shown to not only improve memory function but to stimulate new cells in the hippocampus," Ranganath explained. In a recent study -- walking at least three times a week cut the risk of developing dementia by one-third.

Number four: Watch your meds. Some used to treat heartburn, anxiety, cholesterol, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes or even allergies can seriously impair your memory.

Another booster: be social.

"Social stimulation, for one thing, will get you more alert and aroused," Ranganath said. One report showed talking to another person for just 10 minutes led to significant improvement on memory tests. Researchers say pets count as companions, too!

Also: try neurobics. They're exercises for your brain.

"The truth is the brain is like a muscle because the more you use the brain, the more effective it is," said James McGaugh, Ph.D., neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine.

The idea is to challenge it in unexpected ways. Even small changes in your daily routine can activate new connections in the brain. Try brushing your teeth with the opposite hand, closing your eyes to find your keys in your purse or reorganizing your desk.

Two other ways to improve your memory are music and dance.

"Anything that you can do to engage the brain is going to make the brain work a little better," McGaugh reinforced.

Researchers who followed nearly 500 people for 21 years found that ballroom dancing was the most protective physical activity. It reduced dementia risk by 76 percent.

Number nine: high-tech, computerized brain games can turn the clock back 10 years.

"They tend to focus on what's called working memory, your ability to pay attention," Ranganath explained. Even simple games like Tetris have been shown to enhance brain power.

The last tip: become bilingual. Studies show knowing a second language increases the density of grey matter in the brain and can delay dementia by up to four years.

"The adage that you can't teach an old dog new tricks really isn't true," Chudler said.

These are 10 ways to keep your mind sharp -- and your memory in tact. The researchers we spoke to said nutrition is also important for a good memory, but there's no scientific proof that supplements like ginkgo-biloba -- or other popular vitamin blends -- work. They also say crossword puzzles and games like Sudoku can't hurt because anything that challenges your brain and keeps it active is useful.

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