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The myth of nature’s second brain, exposed

Plus, how to keep that first brain of yours sharp.

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Perhaps one of the most amusing myths about dinosaurs is the stegosaurus’s “sacral brain,” more easily described as the “butt-brain.” That’s right: For more than a century, paleontologists hypothesized that stegosauruses carried a second brain in their sacral cavity (where the spine met the pelvis) that basically functioned as the operating center for the back half of the dinosaur.

While that myth has been debunked (sorry for the spoiler), it’s all too tempting to dream about a second brain that can handle all of the things you don’t have time for, or don’t want to think about. That’s why companies like MailChimp have come up with new automations to help take care of those overlooked details in running a small business — basically a second brain for your business. But until you’ve got MailChimp to take things off your mental plate, you’ll have to make do with the one brain that you have. Fortunately, more research has revealed the ways to keep that old noggin of yours in tip-top shape. Here’s how to keep that first brain sharp as you age:

If you’re over the age of 25, you’re already starting to lose brain function.

Studies have shown that your 20s are essentially you at peak brain power: Your “fluid intelligence,” or the ability to react quickly to new information, peaks in your mid-20s, as does your short-term memory retention. After about the age of 25, it’s all downhill from there. The drop-off occurs around age 35, although more recent research says that even those ages can fluctuate, too. (And it’s not all bad news for those panicking about getting older: MIT says that other brain functions, like the ability to register other people’s emotions, peak at about age 40 or 50.) The moral of the story? You’ve got to work on your cognitive skills long before your golden years — 65 and above — in order to stay sharp.

Brain puzzles really do work.

No, you don’t need to master Sudoku in your spare time — but it can’t hurt. Experts roundly agree that challenging your brain — whether by games, new hobbies, learned skill sets, or volunteering — keeps you “mentally active” and stimulates brain cells for communication.

But being physically active may be even more important.

The one factor that truly limits the effect of aging on your brain function, experts say, is physical exercise. Even moderate exercise has huge benefits for cognition, especially for those 65 years and older. In one study that examined two population groups over five years — one with little to no physical activity and one with light to moderate exercise — those who had little to no physical activity declined at a faster rate than those with light to moderate activity, equal to about 10 years of aging.

But overall health is also important to cognitive function. The most recent advisory from the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association recommends that the basic steps to take to prevent heart attacks and strokes will also stave off the effects of cognitive decline. These include managing blood pressure and blood sugar levels, regulating cholesterol levels, losing weight if overweight, and avoiding smoking.

Your attitude and ability to deal with stress can also help you stay sharp as you age.

If you’re constantly stressed or just a full-time Negative Nancy, you’re wasting valuable mental energy. Chronic stress is particularly damaging, as high cortisol levels can have lasting, long-term effects on brain structure and function. And it’s not just declining cognition that’s at risk from the damage done by chronic stress. According to Psychology Today:

The ‘stress hormone’ cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight.

Chronic stress has the ability to flip a switch in stem cells that turns them into a type of cell that inhibits connections to the prefrontal cortex, which would improve learning and memory, but lays down durable scaffolding linked to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Researchers have recommended practicing mindful meditation to stave off the negative effects of cortisol. It can also help flip your attitude about aging. It’s been found in studies that those who believe the worst about aging and memory — like the adage “an old dog can’t learn new tricks” — also hurt their own cognitive abilities, while those who have positive attitudes about aging have improved cognition. So don’t get too bummed about losing your memory the older you get: Staying positive is just one more way you can keep your brain sharp for years to come.