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Boosting Brain Power: Can You Make Yourself Smarter?

Tips for improving IQ can also help prevent dementia

By Beth Anne Piehl
: Petoskey News-Review

As old as herbs in China, coffee in Arabia and NoDoz pills on college campuses, people have looked for ways to stimulate mental awareness and boost their brainpower.

Nutritional supplements, word games, online IQ tests and fitness regimens can all feed the brain the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function optimally. You can, in fact, make yourself smarter.

Dr. Roger Gietzen, a neurologist in Petoskey, said the same suggestions for building mental acuity may help prevent Alzheimer's disease and dementia as well.

The key is staying mentally active, whether you're a Baby Boomer or just a baby.

“Activities like brain teasers, puzzles and hobbies like gardening and woodworking are very important, things that require brain computation,” said Gietzen. “They really do maintain (brainpower) and can potentially make you smarter.”

Nerve cells in the brain, he explained, can grow new connections - the process of learning. So the more a person reads and learns, the sharper he or she becomes.

Social activities are also important to brain health, Gietzen said. Joining book or bridge clubs, traveling with others and taking part in discussion groups can all bolster the way the brain functions.

“It requires use of the language part of your brain, an area often affected by Alzheimer's,” Gietzen said. “There are studies that show people who are more socially active have a lower risk of developing dementia.”

Jogging your memory

Everyone knows that exercise is important for a healthy body - heart, lungs, muscles, weight control, etc.

But people may not consider the impact regular exercise has on their brain. Again, studies show regular physical activity can reduce the risk of Alzheimer's, and exercise also impacts overall brain health.


“Because your brain relies on good blood flow and oxygen, and people who exercise have better blood vessel health,” he said.

Beneficial exercise doesn't have to be vigorous, he said, just frequent; 30 minutes every-other day would be sufficient.

Diet: ‘A no-brainer'

Similarly to how exercise impacts the brain, so does food. Proper nutrition that helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease also allows for better blood and oxygen flow to the brain.

“A lot of these recommendations are common-sense healthy habits,” Gietzen said. “Healthy for the heart is healthy for the brain.”

Anti-oxidant foods are particularly good for brain health, as are those rich in Vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids. That means dark green healthy vegetables, fruits and natural foods and fish.


Gietzen said studies have shown that the dietary supplement ginkgo biloba can boost brain functioning.

Healthy Alternatives manager Scott Hawes said he started taking the supplement a number of years ago and noticed an improvement in his alertness level.

Well-versed in the supplements carried at the Petoskey store, Hawes said eating right is a big component in brain health: “If you don't give your brain the right fuel, it's not going to function properly.”

To that end, when something is missing from a person's diet, supplements can make up for the lack. For instance, Hawes said fish oil is a benefit for people who don't eat fish; quality supplements do not taste at all like fish, either, he added.

Gingko biloba, one of the store's top sellers, works by increasing oxygen flow. “It's kind of like using a higher octane fuel,” he said.

Bacopa is a newer supplement that may improve memory and learning. Another popular seller is Brain Support Formula, which includes several different herbs including gingko, huperzine and zincamine - plus DHA, a component in breast milk that aids infant brain growth. The supplement costs about $26 for a month's supply.

“It's not something you could take for a month and suddenly feel like Einstein,” Hawes said. “A lot of things tend to take time to be absorbed into the body and it depends on your digestive system and how well that works. It's not a quick fix.”

Gietzen said other brain vitamins are Vitamin E, C and B-12. Folate is also important for brain health.

“It's important in the machinery that runs your nerve cells,” Gietzen said, adding that low B-12 has been linked to Alzheimer's.

Can you really pop brain cells?

It's many a parent's warning to their teens: Drink or do drugs and you'll pop your brain cells.

Not necessarily accurate, but irreversible damage can occur to the brain when the body is abused, Gietzen said.

A sedentary lifestyle, poor nutrition, smoking and alcohol can all negatively affect the brain's functioning.

“For most people, moderate social alcohol consumption probably has no severe effects on the brain,” Gietzen said. “But heavy drinking for a long period of time can do significant brain damage.”

He recalled one patient who had abused alcohol to the point that he basically erased his short-term memory, and Gietzen had to repeatedly introduce himself day after day to the patient.

Stimulant drugs like cocaine and speed can cause strokes, he said, and the illegal drug Ecstasy has been noted to kill serotonin nerve cells in the brain.

One-time use of drugs would likely not cause irreversible damage, but “regular use of drugs definitely can damage your brain,” Gietzen said.

Methods for boosting brainpower

  • Breathe deeply (more oxygen) or meditate
  • Try supplements like phosphotidyl serine or gingko biloba
  • Learn a language
  • Read
  • Do crossword puzzles or word games
  • Write letters
  • Listen to Mozart and take a music lesson
  • Get enough sleep at night
  • Avoid sugar, which can cause “brain fog”
  • Exercise
  • Talk
  • Believe you are smarter
  • Avoid unnecessary arguments
  • Laugh
  • Eat breakfast
  • Use alcohol in moderation (fewer than four drinks a week)

Brain food

Eat your way to intelligence with well-known brain foods, including: avocados, bananas, lean beef, broccoli, brown rice, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cheese, chicken, eggs, flaxseed oil, legumes, oatmeal, oranges, peanut butter, peas, potatoes, romaine lettuce, salmon, soybeans, spinach, tuna, turkey and yogurt.

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