Six tips that could make you smarter

Story highlights

  • Studies show your IQ can vary over time
  • Science writer Dan Hurley believes we can change our IQ for the better
  • Sleep, exercise, and lowering stress could all be beneficial to our intelligence

Vital Signs is a monthly program bringing viewers health stories from around the world.

(CNN)For years scientists have been looking for ways to enhance our intelligence -- from eating fish oil tablets to playing the latest video games.

The jury is out on whether these techniques are truly effective in improving intelligence, but studies have shown that your IQ can change -- so why not give it a try?
    "At least in the short term you can get significantly higher scores on all sorts of cognitive tests," says Dan Hurley, an award winning science journalist and author of "Smarter: The New Science of Building Brain Power."
    With this in mind, here are a few suggestions to boost your brain power -- and health in the process.

    1. Learn to play an instrument

    A study of older adults found that those who regularly took on new hobbies -- such as learning digital photography or making quilts -- scored better in memory tests after three months compared to those who did non-intellectual or low cognitive engagement activities.
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    But for people of any age looking to try something new, picking up a musical instrument might be the key to boosting the most brain cells.
    "There are studies showing that learning a new musical instrument is associated with improved intellectual abilities," says Hurley, who adds that musicians have long been observed to be smarter than the average person.
    So maybe it's time to turn your rock star dream into a reality?

    2. Eat brain food

    The smarter you eat, the smarter you could stay, especially as you age -- but evidence remains limited for which food works best.
    Recent research published in the journal Neurology found that improving overall diet quality is an important factor for lowering the risk of memory loss and thinking ability.
    In terms of actually improving cognitive function, further research found that a Mediterranean style diet containing olive oil and nuts -- rich in antioxidants -- might just do the trick. The monounsaturated fatty acids in avocados are also thought to help protect nerve cells in the brain and augment the brain's muscle strength.
    Hurley is keen to point out, however, that there are no clear answers when it comes to your diet boosting your IQ. He argues that "the whole field of diet research is famously fuzzy," with some advertisements and claims turning out to be nonsense, or not standing up to scrutiny, such as theories that omega-3 or other supplements can reduce cognitive decline.
    But if you're a fan of healthier snacking there's no harm in having an extra helping of chard or grazing on nuts, berries and seeds -- to name a few -- which are a great source of vitamins and antioxidants to make you a lean, green, thinking machine.

    3. Relish your sleep

    Who doesn't love a duvet day? The U.S. National Sleep Foundation advises that seven to nine hours a night are optimal for most of us to function as we should.
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    "Your brain is, generally speaking, making new neurons during sleep," argues Hurley. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), sleep helps our nervous system to function properly, with some experts believing nerves use the period we sleep to shut down and repair themselves -- helping our brains work better.
    "If you don't do it you're really disabling yourself," says Hurley.
    Missing a whole night's sleep can cause nerves to malfunction and the overall functioning within your brain to become reduced. Your visual memory and ability to learn are also thought to be vulnerable to sleep deprivation -- sleep hygiene seems the way to go.

    4. Get physical

    A good work out not only builds your muscles, it also builds your mind. The Alzheimer's Association recommends regular exercise as this is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline. And researchers from Stanford have found that even just taking a walk will increase your creativity.
    Whether you're young or old, getting out and about is a great way to elevate your heart rate, which increases the blood flow to your brain and body. A good workout can keep you mentally sharp as it reduces potential dementia risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol.
    "Especially if you're not very fit, doing either cardiovascular exercise or strength training can definitely help your brain function," says Hurley. This is particularly useful in older adults who are doing very little.
    "It's really the one area of brain training that essentially no one in the field really questions. There are no real skeptics of it," Hurley adds.

    5. Avoid stress

    People shouting, traffic jams, deadlines, injuries ... recognize these scenarios? Any situation that is highly stressful can seriously impact your mind, according to Hurley. The key to being smart, is focus.
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    "The hallmark of intelligence is being able to focus on a task at hand, block out the rest of the world and zoom in on this thing that you're trying to discriminate between, looking very carefully at a problem," he says. When dealing with high levels of stress, it can be difficult to access this mindset.
    A recent study found that a variety of cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer's or schizophrenia, are worsened by exposure to stress due to dysfunction of the brain's prefrontal cortex. "When the brain is exposed to discord and people are freaked out and yelling and screaming... the brain does not flourish in that environment," says Hurley.
    "If a person can find peace and tranquility, their brain is going to respond better."

    6. Stick around

    According to the Flynn Effect -- which states that general IQ among the population has increased over time -- we are already much smarter than our relatives from a hundred years ago. Recent research found that over a series of decades, our IQ scores have gotten better and better.
    Using modern testing standards, if you were to give an IQ test to people living a century ago they would only score an average of 70 -- the average in the United States today is estimated to be 98. Professor James Flynn -- who developed the theory -- believes people are now living in a completely different environment where they learn to respond to problems in very different ways.
    So while the increase in IQ scores has varied globally, the overall advancement of technology and education worldwide means that people thinking more laterally than ever before.
    This means, hypothetically, that if you make it to 2100 you might find your IQ score has improved.
    Congratulations in advance.