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Reverse the brain drain of aging

By Alison Hashimoto
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(CNN) -- For some, the search for the fountain of youth means downing fruit-flavored potions they believe give them more energy. Others look for it in the creams and lotions they rub on their crows' feet in hopes that the wrinkles will magically disappear. Still, there are those of us who think a true fountain of youth would deliver the answer to one of the mysteries of middle-age life: Where did I put my car keys?

It is true that as we age, our brains age, too. The memory loss and slower cognitive thinking that begin to affect people in their 40s are a natural part of the aging process. But just as we can alter our diets and include exercise in our daily routines to reduce our risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke, new research shows that there are things we can do to slow, and perhaps even reverse, the aging process in our brains.

According to Dr. Eric Braverman, author of "Younger You: Unlock the Hidden Power of Your Brain to Look and Feel 15 Years Younger," the key is understanding the role of the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which acts as a preservative for brain function. (Watch new methods for coping with Alzheimer's disease. Video )

By adjusting the levels of acetylcholine through dietary supplements, natural compounds and a "rainbow diet" of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, Braverman says, many people could turn back their brain's clock by as much as 15 years.

"Most people can be sharper by 15 years if they work at it," he says. "And that adds up to a lot. That means that age 80 is like 65...they can remember numbers better; when they go to parties it is a couple of more faces that they can remember. It's going to add a lot to their overall quality of life."

To boost your brain's ability to function as it did in younger years, Braverman, who is the director of the Place for Achieving Total Health Medical Centers in New York and Philadelphia, recommends:

• Mental exercises. In addition to reading, doing crossword puzzles and playing musical instruments, try a different brain challenge such as learning to eat with utensils using your left hand, if you are right-handed, or vice-versa if you are left-handed.

• Change in diet. Incorporate a colorful variety of fruits and vegetables into your diet, and avoid processed foods and saturated fats.

• Spicing up your meals. Braverman says certain spices improve your brain speed, including basil, black pepper, sage, turmeric and mint.

Braverman's "Younger You" plan also includes suggestions for incorporating doses of nutrients such as choline, Deanol and fish oils as well as the herbs Huperzine A and ginkgo biloba, among others. It is important to note that research on the effectiveness of supplements is limited, and conventional medicine is still not convinced that these kinds of supplements work.

For example, while small studies on gingko biloba and memory showed promise, a trial sponsored by the National Institute on Aging of more than 200 healthy adults over age 60 found that gingko taken for 6 weeks did not improve memory. Still, there is interest in doing more scientific studies in this area. In fact, the National Institute on Aging is in Phase II of a clinical trial of Huperzine A to see whether it is an effective treatment of Alzheimer's disease.

If herbs and dieting are not your thing, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins and his researcher wife have another suggestion to help you stay sharp in your golden years: Go shopping.

While researching their book, "Keep Your Brain Young", Guy McKhann, M.D. and his wife, Marilyn Albert, Ph.D., studied 700 75- to 80-year-olds for at least five years and took note of their activities and their levels of mental and physical abilities. They theorized that "those who continued to do well were physically active, mentally active, and continued to see themselves having a role to play in life," says McKhann. He and Albert found that for this group, shopping seemed to incorporate the necessary elements of staying fit and alert.

It would seem to make sense. The physical activities include walking, lifting products, bending, trying on clothing, carrying bags or pushing carts. On the mental side, there's comparing prices, doing simple math and selecting items, as well as the social element of interacting with other shoppers and the cashiers.

For those of us approaching our golden years, isn't it comforting to know we can fight off the aging process in our brains, just as we've done with the rest of our bodies? So load up on the blueberries, the orange sweet potatoes, and the purple kale spiced with turmeric and meet me at the mall to do some shopping. Now, if I can just find my car keys....


Neuroscientists believe that even early stage Alzheimer's patients can slow the disease's progression by keeping busy.


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