Food for brain-healthy thought — and Happy 4th of July Picnic to you

Ketchup alongside French fried potatoes
Image via Wikipedia

Just when you start thinking hot dogs, french fries and toasted marshmallows for the summer, along come other viewpoints. But this space is all about dialog.

Reader Cato, in response to the alcohol cause-for-harm tax referenced below, suggests a fat tax — which would surely tax the enjoyment of your 4th of July potato salad and homemade ice cream. More useful is a new feature just instituted over at the Posit Science folks’ blog site: Brain Healthy Recipes.  French fried potatoes need not apply.

But as it turns out, there are plenty of foods — spinach, nuts, garlic (!), carrots and more — that can shape up your brain. Research has shown, says blogger Marghi Merzenich, that foods containing certain nutrients can boost memory, alertness, and have other benefits for brain health.

As it further turns out, a lot of brain-healthy items make pretty tasty dishes. Over at the Amen Clinic site (that’s Daniel G. Amen, MD, certainly a fine name for a brainy doctor) you can find recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner including Dorie’s Truly Amazing Lamb, Beans and Rice, or the Homemade Turkey Jerky which Dr. Amen professes to eat all the time when he’s writing. He’s got a LOT more published books than this writer, so perhaps I should whip up a little turkey jerky.

The EatingWell folks also have an assortment of brain-healthy recipes, plus menus in groups beginning with prenatal and extending through geezer.

Some of these even fall within my three basic food groups: caffeine, ice cream and chocolate — or at the least, allow a dollop of espresso. Hope your picnic is a merry, and brain-healthy time.

Can geezer drivers become better drivers?

This is the initial report from the field re geezer drivers and brain exercise. This space hereby goes on record as a believer. Just a minimal believer, but I — a certified geezer driver — actually think aging brains can become better-driving brains.

I recently downloaded, accessed, stored, signed in and completed whatever else one must do to begin the Posit Science DriveSharp program, an initial exercise in brain sharpening for computer Luddites. There are other programs out there to sharpen the skills of geezer drivers, and plenty of computer-game exercises aimed at the same goal. Posit Science (I am not on their payroll) offered me their program without charge, and little by little I plan to get all the way through.

For now, I have only done some initial roaming around and a few of the exercises. But an interesting thing has happened. Much of this is about how, as one ages, one’s “useful field of view” diminshes. So one might see the stop sign but miss the car speeding around the corner to the left. (If that’s a texting driver, you’re toast.)

I don’t think I’ve improved my useful field of view. But on an extended driving trip with my husband and a friend — in his wife’s fancy Lexus — this past weekend, I was actually complimented on my skills (ever try the two-lane, pothole-filled miles over the mountains from Hwy 101 to California’s Lost Coast?) by the car’s owner who had retired to the back seat. I think just the awareness of what “useful field of view” means makes a difference. Plus, I think brain exercises, even if they’re just teasers (Teasers for Geezers, this could be a new hit) build awareness of the complex issues drivers can face.

Try thinking about that “useful field of view” business, taking a test or doing a few brain exercises before your next drive, and see if you notice any difference. If I can ever find some actual time to do so I will undertake a few hours of actual DriveSharp program and report back.

Meanwhile, hang up the phone, please, and watch out for texters and geezers behind the wheel.

Can you beef up your brain?

Not multi-tasking fast enough? Trouble concentrating? Worried about memory loss?

Maybe those neurotransmitters in your poor, information-overloaded brain can be expanded to improve these functions… and maybe not.  A panel of experts on the PBS series Life (Part 2) is tackling the topic of brain exercise — a topic which has been tackled in this space several times in the past (How’s your brain fitness today, 10/5; Diet, exercise and Alzheimer’s, 11/28.)

We talked with panelist Denise Park, PhD, founder of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas, who starts right out by debunking any notion that those crossword puzzles will keep you sharp: [youtubevid id=”xZBzZZJHic0″]

But all is not lost. Jigsaw puzzles could indeed help. “With jigsaw puzzles you’re manipulating materials,” Park comments, “and actively puzzle-solving; what we call executive function.” This may explain — though only in part — the brilliance of British novelist Margaret Drabble, whose new memoir, The Pattern in the Carpet is subtitled A Personal History with Jigsaws; although my own personal history with jigsaws unfortunately hasn’t enabled me to write like Margaret Drabble.

It is the combination of functions that stimulates, and perhaps enhances, those brain cells, Park explains. She recommends doing something both stimulating and fun: dancing (“I believe the social component is important”), learning to play a musical instrument, etc. — in which motor, auditory and other systems all come into play. Or taking up something like photography, with which one masters one step and then moves on to the next.

“I’m reluctant to prescribe anything to improve cognition,” Park says, “because we don’t know yet. We need to know a lot more.” Still, current findings — Park’s Center is doing fascinating work with aging citizens who are learning to quilt — are heartening, and anecdotal evidence about those of us reciting lists of numbers to each other and then trying to do them backwards, as suggested by the SharpBrains people, suggests that hilarity is good.

And the best news may be that computers aren’t the be-all and end-all here. Park suspects that sitting in front of a computer playing games, even games advertised to stimulate the brain, may have no great brain-building value at all.

So this space advises getting out the dancing shoes or the mandolin, inviting friends in to play numbers games — and maybe buying a giant jigsaw puzzle (for two.)

Diet, exercise and Alzheimers

These paragraphs are a segue from talk of holiday festivities, over the past several days,  into the very un-festive subject of Alzheimer’s disease.

Part of the conversation at the very festive Thanksgiving dinner I was lucky to enjoy (without having cooked a single dish!) centered around food for the brain. One argument was that the good stuff for one’s neurotransmitters — egg yolks, broccoli, soy, starches — should be meticulously watched. I heard my mother’s voice in my head in response. “If you have three meals a day that look pretty on the plate,” she liked to advise, “you’re getting the proper diet.” When pressed she would explain that “pretty” equates to “color-coordinated,” i.e.: toast/bacon/scrambled eggs with parsley; or broccoli/carrots/potatoes/hamburger. I can’t remember whether our plates were 9-inch or otherwise.

Then there is the larger issue of exercise. Fitness, and occasionally brain exercise, have been contemplated several times in this space over the past few months (10/5: How’s your brain fitness today?; 9/7: The new best thing.) These theories hold that it is possible to strengthen, possibly even build anew, those neurotransmitters.

The definitive word on all this has not been written, and answers surely won’t originate with someone who barely passed Science I-II for the math/science requirement of her BA in Art. But some fascinating studies are being done, and new American Recovery and Reinvestment Funds will be going to projects that will be the focus of this space tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Alzheimer’s and various forms of dementia remain the ultimate tragedy in millions of lives, diet and brain exercise and clean living in general notwithstanding.

One of the most poignant insights into this disease you’ll be likely ever to see is currently offered by the PBS series Life (Part 2.) It follows a beautiful, articulate woman named Mary Ann Becklenberg as she confronts her own decline with incredible courage. What science may find answers for in the next few years, Mary Ann Becklenberg is exploring in real time. Schedules and clips are on the Life (Part 2) website.

Chances are, whether you’re over 50 or not, your life will be impacted by dementia. I, for one, am grateful for science and for Mary Ann Becklenberg.