cognitive tests

  1. Get a whiff of concentration

    I always get a kick out of the fridge in my local 7-11. It's loaded with drinks that make all kinds of promises.

    Energy is the most common one, of course, but others promise everything from "focus" to "calm" to "concentration."

    It's a laugh, because no matter what promise they make, most of these drinks have the same basic ingredients: sugar, water, and artificial flavors combined with small amounts of vitamins or large amounts of caffeine.

    In some cases, those vitamins can deliver on the promise made by the label -- just not in the tiny amounts you'll find in the drink. You're always better off just taking it as a supplement.

    And in at least one case, you don't need to swallow a thing -- drink or supplement -- to get the benefits.

    Rosemary, the fragrant herb often used in soups and meat dishes, is so good at helping you to focus that just the scent alone will do the trick.

    Twenty people were given a whiff of rosemary followed by a series of cognitive tests and mood assessments. The stronger the smell, the better they did on both -- although the impact on mood was nothing compared to what it did for cognition.

    Believe it or not, that's not even the surprise here. Other studies have also shown that the very smell of rosemary can give your mind an extra gear.

    No, the real surprise is that blood tests revealed the presence of 1,8-cineole in the blood. That's the essential oil found in rosemary, somehow turning up in blood after inhaling the mere odor of this stuff.

    The researchers say that means the aroma alone acts as a "therapeutic drug" and are already talking of how they might one day make meds out of fragrant herbs such as rosemary, peppermint, and lavender.

    But why wait for meds and their inevitable side effects when you can go straight to the source?

    Rosemary is available right now, for cheap, and if I was in college I'd be practically stuffing it up my nose at test time.

    Might sound crazy, but a better grade is a better grade.

    Since my test-taking years ended long ago, I plan to use rosemary differently -- like next time I need help finishing a Sudoku puzzle or locating missing socks.

  2. Nicotine may slow cognitive decline

    Could nicotine possibly be good for you?

    Short answer: Yes... sort of, and a new study shows again how the most addictive ingredient in cigarettes could help boost the brain.

    But don't start smoking -- because trust me, any "benefits" of nicotine are far outweighed by the risks.

    In the new study, researchers didn't even look at smokers. They recruited 67 non-smokers with mild cognitive impairment, one of the earliest warning signs of dementia, and assigned them to wear either a nicotine patch or a placebo patch.

    After six months, those who had the real patch did a little better on cognitive tests than those who got the placebo -- and didn't show any signs of side effects or even addiction.

    It's not too surprising, since nicotine is known to mimic a common neurotransmitter that often goes missing in people with dementia and other cognitive disorders.

    It does such a good job of it, in fact, that it pretty much behaves exactly like that neurotransmitter once it's in the brain -- and it's one of the reasons smokers get a quick boost in concentration after they light up.

    These brain-boosting benefits are among the reasons Big Pharma has been hard at work on a nicotine pill -- not to help smokers quit, but to bring the supposed benefits of nicotine to nonsmokers.

    But no matter how they try to sell you that nicotine, whether it's in a pill, patch or pipe, it's just not worth it -- because there are far better and more effective ways to boost your brainpower and slash your risk of dementia.

    Start with the ordinary B vitamins you can get from any vitamin shop. One recent groundbreaking study found that seniors who were given a blend of B6, B12 and folate did 70 percent better on memory tests than seniors who took a placebo.

    In fact, seniors who took the supplement improved by just about every measure, with boosts in episodic memory, semantic memory and overall global cognition. They even had lower levels of homocysteine, an inflammation marker linked to dementia, heart disease and more.

    And along with memory, B vitamins can help with everything from mood to muscle.

    With benefits like that, why mess around with nicotine?

  3. Hearts and minds: a healthy connection

    A sharper mind won't just help you ward off the signs of dementia – new research finds that keeping keen can also mean a healthier heart.

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