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posted: 9/2/2013 6:00 AM

Your health: How to stay mentally sharp

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  • If you can't remember that important phone number or other crucial details, make sure you manage your stress, among other things, to improve your memory.

    If you can't remember that important phone number or other crucial details, make sure you manage your stress, among other things, to improve your memory.


A sharp mind

The way you live, what you eat and drink, and how you treat your body affect your memory as well as your physical health and well-being. Here are five things you can do every day to keep mind and body sharp, says Harvard Medical School.

Manage your stress. The constant drumbeat of daily stresses such as deadline pressures or petty arguments can certainly distract you and affect your ability to focus and recall. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga and a "mindful" approach to living can all help.

Get a good night's sleep. This is essential for consolidating memories. The most common reason for poor sleep is insomnia -- difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

If you smoke, quit. Easier said than done, certainly, but if you need additional motivation, know that smokers have a greater degree of age-related memory loss and other memory problems than nonsmokers. People who smoke more than two packs of cigarettes a day at midlife have more than double the risk of developing dementia.

If you drink alcohol, do so moderately. Drinking too much alcohol increases the risk for memory loss and dementia. People with alcoholism have difficulty performing short-term memory tasks.

Protect your brain from injury. Head trauma is a major cause of memory loss and increases the risk of developing dementia. Always use the appropriate gear during high-speed activities and contact sports. Wear seat belts when riding in motor vehicles.

It's all human

We sometimes giggle when a person slips and falls. Snicker when a politician's vice is publicly exposed. Feel relief when no one wins the big lottery jackpot. Smirk when we triumph in a board game or see a co-worker passed over for a promotion.

It can be embarrassing to admit to finding pleasure in others' misfortune, but according to "The Joy of Pain" by psychologist Richard H. Smith, the feeling -- known as schadenfreude -- is an undeniable part of being human, says The Washington Post.

"Schadenfreude" combines the German words for "harm" and "joy," the book explains. At its root, schadenfreude is not a sign that someone is inconsiderate, evil or vengeful. According to Smith, it is a feeling stemming from the natural tendency to compare ourselves with others.

People also find satisfaction in others' suffering if we determine that they "deserve it." The book notes that the more deserving someone appears to be of the misfortune that befalls him, the more open people are in their display of schadenfreude.

Smith adds that because the desire for justice is such a strong human motive, we are biased in our perceptions of deservingness, especially if we feel we have been personally wronged. In this case, schadenfreude can take an exaggeratedly dark turn.

On the other hand, he writes, there is evidence that human nature generally "disposes us more toward compassionate responses than hostile ones."

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