Get Smart | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Get Smart

Yes, Mississippi is the most obese state. We're too sedate, and our diets suck. No news there.

Last week, though, we learned that we're No. 51 on American's Brain Health Index. This is disturbing news. If you've heard about all the neuroscience discoveries of the last two decades, you know how important our brains are to our well-being and happiness—and contrary to convention wisdom, they can keep improving over our entire lifetimes. Or, they can atrophy, leaving us with a disease like Alzheimer's, or at the least confused, unhappy and mad at the world.

But brain health is important for the young, too—and can even keep a kid from turning to crime, and it sure can make a difference in the overall status of our state. Put simply: We need smart people to stay here, and we need the people who stay to be smart.

The good news is that brain health can be improved through four lifestyle factors, according to the National Center for Creative Aging: physical activity, strong mental health efforts, social well-being and, yes, through a smart diet. (All these factors help reduce obesity and all sorts of other diseases, too; talk about useful multi-tasking.)

The book "Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom" (New Harbinger, 2009, $17.95) goes into great detail about all the exciting brain discoveries of late and about how meditation and mindfulness can help your brain grow and expand. But it also gives specific advice on what you can eat to help your brain grow stronger in an appendix called "Nutritional Neurochemistry."

There are not a lot of surprises: "Eat well every day" is the first point. That means at least three cups of vegetables, or more, of different-colored veggies. (Each color means a different nutrient.)

"Ideally, half of your plate at each meal will be covered by vegetables of all kinds and colors," the authors write. Fruits are important, too, especially berries of various kinds.

You need to minimize sugar as well because it "wears on the hippocampus," which is bad (read the book to see why) and leads to cognitive impairment. Avoid refined (white) sugar, sodas and other sugary drinks and refined flour. Choose 100 percent whole grains for your breads, pastas, cookies, etc., instead.

Food allergens also hurt your brain: "Chronic inflammation, even if relatively mild, is an enemy of the brain." The book advises you to try giving up foods made from gluten, dairy and soy one at a time for a week or two and monitor whether you're thinking more clearly. You can also get a formal allergy test through a lab or your doctor.

Good, natural supplements can really help brain health as well. You need a high-quality multi-vitamin containing B-12, B-6 and folic acid especially, which helps create those vital neurotransmitters. Everyone should take Omega-3 Fatty Acids, such as a good fish-oil supplement; the DHA is vital for brain development. Vegetarians can take a tablespoon of flaxseed oil daily instead (perhaps with some algae for enough DHA).

You also need quality vitamin E in the form of gamma-tocopherol. Check the label; not all E is created equal.

The following foods are ideal for improved brain health, Doctors Health Press reports. Don't scrimp.

1. Berries, especially blueberries (the hippocampus loves them!), strawberries, black currants and boysenberries are fruit for the intellect.
2. Love your Fatty Fish, and all that Omega-3 goodness inside the gills.
3. Green Tea is "the world's healthiest beverage," and it can wake you up. Try the Japanese Bancha variety if you don't want it to stimulate you too much.
4. Dark chocolate. The good stuff, not Snickers bars. OK, scrimp a little.
5. Grape juice helps with short-term memory (a problem often mistaken for ADHD or that makes you surf the Web instead of make your dang deadline). It also increases dopamine, the "happiness hormone."
6. "An apple a day could keep Alzheimer's away," advises Doctors Health Press. And they increase neuroplasticity. (A very good thing.) Organic are best.
7. Leafy greens, such as spinach, kale, turnip greens and collards help improve memory. Don't cook them to death. Put them in salads; sauté in pasta and rice.
8. Avocados have 14 minerals, including anti-aging antioxidants, not to mention good fat. Slice and enjoy.
9. Curry adds spice and intelligence and contains brain-loving curcumin that can reverse brain damage.
10. Coffee, with caffeine (is there any other kind?), contains antioxidants and is good for the brain in moderation.
11. Olive oil helps you score better on mental tests and helps stave off Alzheimer's.
12. Barley seems antiquated, but has improved memory dramatically in studies. Barley flour is a good substitute for wheat.
13. Walnuts will help you feel like anything but a nut.

Don't Forget ...
The National Center for Creative Aging also recommends three other health approaches to keep the brain sharp:
• Physical health—staying physically active for at least 30 minutes a day most days of the week and making wise lifestyle decisions such as getting enough sleep and not smoking.
• Mental health—continually challenging the brain through activities such as game playing, creative pursuits like gardening, dancing or painting, or learning a new language or skill.
• Social well-being—nurturing human connections and engaging in social activities to give life purpose, such as volunteering.

Top 10 Brain-Healthy States:

1. Maryland
2. District of Columbia
3. Washington
4. Colorado
5. Vermont
6. New Hampshire
7. Oregon
8. Utah
9. Maine
10. New Jersey

And the Worst:
50. Louisiana
51. Mississippi

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