GET smart and stay smart

No, I’m not talking about that cornball old spy TV show, but rather some very interesting new information about our brains and how we can keep sharp.

According to recent studies, some of which are conducted at Harvard and the University of Southern California, researchers have found that people who display similar brain activity while at rest, as to when they are actively engaged in mental processes, perform those mental tasks more efficiently.

Researchers speculate that because some people can switch from a relatively inactive brain state to a more mentally challenging state easily, they are more mentally efficient. This corresponds to previous studies that have also suggested that the more intelligent a person is, the more efficient their brain activity is.

There are several explanations for why being efficient in changing brain activity and performing well at mental tasks may be. One theory is that an individual’s brain may be partially pre-configured to switch between resting and working states so that less re-configuration is needed.

The other explanation is that people who perform well on mental tasks require only small changes in their brain activity. The question remains if there are ways to improve the connectivity networks of humans’ brains in order to improve their cognitive abilities.

We are well aware, however, that there are proven ways of helping prevent loss of brain function particularly as we age, and these are well documented strategies.

A diet that is rich in fiber, moderate in protein, and good fats as well as low in sugar is vital for optimal mental energy. This style of eating gives a steady pace to the digestion and a lasting level of energy to the brain. Over eating and under-eating are both detrimental to brain function. Too few calories is associated with distraction, confusion and memory impairment whereas too many calories leads to mental sluggishness.

Lifestyle diseases that affect the entire body such as Type II diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure also affect the brain significantly leading to cognitive decline and memory loss. These diseases are largely avoidable. Despite an unhealthy family background it is up to each individual to guard against these types of diseases.

I can speak to having the worst set of genetic markers which would normally leading to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cancer and yet, because of my healthy lifestyle — well so far so good. Don’t smoke, don’t drink to excess, avoid saturated fats and sugar, and exercise as though your life depends on it! Because it does.

Sleep is important for proper brain functioning. When we don’t sleep, a recent study has demonstrated that proteins build up on the synapses (the connections between neurons — (brain cells), which leads to faulty transmission of nerve impulses.

Caffeine, although once maligned has more recently been heralded as a protective agent for the brain. The studies have involved moderate use of caffeine –two to four cups of coffee may in fact decrease cognitive decline and decrease the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. It is not clear at this point whether it is solely the caffeine found in coffee or the antioxidants as well that are responsible for this protective aspect.

The essential fatty acids found in fish (Omega 3 fatty acids) are critical to brain function. Good sources of omega 3 fatty acids besides fatty fish such as salmon are fresh ground flax seeds. Make sure the flax seeds are fresh ground because the fatty acids can quickly go rancid. They are after all, powerful antioxidants.

Another lifestyle consideration is stress reduction. No one can think well when distracted by stress and bombarded internally by the stress hormone cortisol. Systematic and frequent exercise, yoga, meditation, socializing and having fun can reduce stress immensely and is important is developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Brain teasers such as crossword puzzles, word searches or Sudoku may be helpful in maintain mental clarity over the long term, although there is not yet definitive research establishing their efficacy in promotion of brain health.

What is known for sure is that lack of education is a strong predictor of cognitive decline and the continuation of learning and trying new things is a strong predictor of cognitive fitness in older years.

I hope that you work hard at staying as sharp as you can for as many years as you can. For me, losing that part of me would be devastating. Pretty sure we can all agree on that!


Jane Riley is a certified personal trainer, adviser and behavior change specialist. She can be reached or (808) 212-8119 and


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