gray matter

  1. The key vitamins that will protect your brain

    "Brain shrinkage" sounds scary enough. Seriously, who wants a shrinking brain?

    But in reality, all our brains shrink a little over the years -- and in most cases it's nothing to worry about.

    Some brains, however, shrink faster than others -- and since this rapid loss of gray matter is often a warning sign of dementia and Alzheimer's disease, you want to limit your own shrinkage as much as possible.

    And the best way to do that is with the vitamins you should be getting anyway.

    I've told you how B vitamins can help slow the shrinkage linked to dementia and stop or even reverse cognitive decline. Now, blood tests on 104 seniors with an average age of 87 finds that those with the highest levels of vitamins B, C, D and E have the biggest brains.

    Not coincidentally, seniors with high levels of these key nutrients also did the best on tests that measured certain cognitive functions -- specifically, the ability to think, plan and solve problems. They also did better on tests measuring visuospatial skills and global cognitive function.

    In plain talk, that means these vitamins can help keep your brain sharp enough to chase dementia away.

    Along with those nutrients, make sure you get your share of omega-3 fatty acids -- because the same study found that seniors with the highest levels of these essential fats had better cognitive function and less damage to the white matter of the brain.

    And don't forget while omega-3s can protect the brain, there's another type of fat than can rot it from the inside: the dangerous trans fats used in so-called "healthy" products like margarine.

    Seniors with the highest levels of those trans fats, which you'll find in everything from coffee creamers to snack cakes, had smaller brains and did poorly on cognitive tests.

    Keep in mind that food makers are allowed to round "low" levels of trans fats down to zero -- so don't trust the ingredients panel. Any product that has partially hydrogenated vegetable oils will have trans fats -- so avoid them, even if it says "trans fat free" on the label.

    It's not the first study to show that nutrients can slow or stop dementia. As I mentioned earlier, B vitamins have proven time and again to prevent shrinkage, reduce inflammation and boost brainpower.

    And while a good diet will include most of the vitamins you need to keep your brain sharp the exception to the rule is those Bs. You'll need more of those than what you'll find in food, so be sure to add a quality B complex to your regimen today.

  2. Nothing fishy about it: Seafood will boost your brainpower

    "Fish is brain food" is the kind of age-old folk wisdom that's been proven time and again by cutting-edge science -- and the latest research confirms that the best way to keep your brain swimming in gray matter is with a steady diet of fish.

    I mean that literally: Seniors who eat fish at least once a week have more of that critical gray matter, giving them a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

    The biggest boost is in the frontal and temporal lobes -- specifically the areas most closely linked to memory and learning, or exactly where you want your extra gray matter to be.

    And if you think the benefits inside the brain are impressive, you should see how that translates out in the real world: Just 3.2 percent of the fish-eaters developed cognitive decline over five years, versus 30.8 percent of those who ate little to no fish, according to data presented at a Radiological Society of North America meeting.

    If there's one area where the researchers found no benefit, it was in fried fish -- and I have to wonder if it's because of the frying... or because of the oils people tend to fry things in.

    Most people don't fry their foods -- fish or otherwise -- in healthy oils. They fry them in the unhealthiest polyunsaturated oils of all, including blended vegetable oils, soybean oil and safflower oil.

    Try a healthier oil -- like peanut oil -- and all your fried foods will get a health boost (and taste better, too).

    But let's get back to seafood, cooked however you like -- because a diet rich in fatty fish will do so much more than protect your brain. Fatty fish can help prevent heart disease, protect your vision, beat depression and even improve your gums.

    Yet despite all those benefits, some simply won't eat fish to save their lives. Maybe it's the smell... the taste... the texture... or all three.

    Whatever the reason, you don't have to actually eat any fish at all to get the benefits -- because almost all of those benefits come from the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil, which you can find almost anywhere as a supplement.

    Shop around before you commit to one -- some brands will leave you with the "fish burps," which is a little counterproductive if you're taking pills to avoid the taste of fish in the first place.

    Buy smaller sizes or sample packs first -- it might take a little trial-and-burping, but eventually, you'll find one that works for you.

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