brain size

This Is Your Brain

March 14, 2012 at 12:45 pm , by

Remember that out-there PSA where the guy holds up an egg (your brain) and cracks it into a pan? Then, as the egg fries, he says: “This is your brain on drugs.” Well, it may be time for another “your brain on…” PSA, but this time it would be about how to make your “egg” healthier.

Experts used to think that there was no way to prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But a slew of research from the past two years is starting to chip away at that, according to renowned Baltimore neurologist Majid Fotuhi, M.D., a member of our Medical Advisory Board. This week, he published a review in the prestigious journal Nature that covers what you can do to protect your brain from aging and dementia.

“It turns out your brain is not a fixed structure like your nose or ears,” Dr. Fotuhi says. “There are lots of things people can do to expand the size of their brain, and especially the part of their brain responsible for memory, called the hippocampus.”

It almost sounds too simple, but when it comes to your brain, bigger is actually better. Brain shrinkage is one of the main symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and several studies show having a large hippocampus improves your memory and protects you from dementia. So what works? Here are a few things that can change your brain—in a good way.

Exercise
Just three months of aerobic exercise can increase the size of your hippocampus enough that it can be seen by the naked eye on a brain scan, according to one study. Walk a mile a day or do 45 minutes of more vigorous aerobic activity three times a week.

Meditation
Stress and depression can shrink your brain, but meditation may protect you from it. Studies show that people who practice mindful meditation techniques can grow their hippocampus in as little as eight weeks, according to the review.

Learning
“Your brain cells are like your muscle cells. Use them or lose them,” Dr. Fotuhi says. By building new connections, your brain gets stronger and stays in shape longer. Take a class in a foreign language, learn to play chess or start reading up on a complicated topic.

For more on Alzheimer’s, read Lauren Bernstein’s darkly funny essay about worrying that every little memory lapse is a sign of impending dementia. How does she keep a sunny outlook when her family history puts her at risk?

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