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Too Many Senior Moments?

Lifestyle changes can help memory and protect your brain

Weill Medical College Center for Women’s Healthcare Women’s Health Advisor, December 2002

You already know that poor diet and lack of exercise increase your risk for heart disease and diabetes. But were you aware that lifestyle also affects memory?

“Our studies using PET scans show subtle evidence of brain aging as early as the 20s and 30s,” says Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Center on Aging. “Genetics determines only one third of healthy brain aging. The other two thirds are lifestyle and environment. So you can do a lot to keep your brain healthy and stave off memory loss.”

“Senior moments” such as forgetting where your car is parked are fairly common, says Elisa Lottor, N.D., Ph.D., a nutritionist and naturopathic physician in California. About 40 percent of people 65 and over have age-associated memory impairment, but only about 1 percent will develop Alzheimer’s disease each year. So don’t panic over simple forgetfulness—but do make diet and lifestyle changes to protect your brain.

Since several factors may contribute to memory problems, Dr. Lottor recommends a holistic approach. Her book Female and Forgetful offers a six-step program to protect and restore memory.

It’s true: use it or lose it

Research shows that both physical and mental activity are associated with healthy brain aging, says Dr. Small. People who remain intellectually active—who read, have mentally stimulating jobs, or continue their education—preserve their memories better than those who don’t. Laboratory studies of animals in an enriched environment indicate that complex stimulation promotes a healthy brain; in one study, published in 2002 in Annals of Neurology, mice living in a cage containing a running wheel, nesting material, and toys actually grew new brain cells.

Dr. Small recommends both physical exercise and “mental aerobics.” Physical exertion increases circulation to the brain, helping prevent strokes and dementia, and bringing nutrients that keep the brain cells healthy. The frontal brain in particular—the part involved in complex problem-solving—benefits from aerobic exercise, as opposed to stretching and toning.

Mental exercise, he says, is like working out any cell in the body: unused, it atrophies. Dr. Lottor describes a retired CPA who discovered that her mind was no longer as sharp. “Working with numbers is flexing your mind, just as lifting weights is flexing your muscles,” Dr. Lottor explains.  

“Mental aerobics”

Mental exercise can range from crossword puzzles and jigsaws to playing Scrabble, learning a new language, or watching Jeopardy! on TV and answering the questions yourself. In his book The Memory Bible,  Dr. Small gives a set of “workouts” for both the left and right sides of the brain.

A critical form of mental stimulation is social connection. Studies on “successful aging” found that people who kept in close contact with many friends and were involved in meaningful activities stayed vigorous and mentally alert as they aged.

Physical workouts

Dr. Lottor recommends cardiovascular exercise such as swimming, biking, or just walking, as well as stretching exercise like yoga, tai chi, or Pilates. Even just walking a few times a week will help, adds Dr. Small. A study published in Archives of Internal Medicine in 2001 found that elderly women who walked more and climbed more stairs were less likely to develop cognitive decline after 6 to 8 years than those who were less active.

De-stress your life and body

“Never have women had so many responsibilities,” notes Dr. Lottor: working, mothering, elder care, housework—and looking good while they do it. Under such tremendous overload, the adrenal glands continuously release stress hormones that deplete the body of essential nutrients, including those the brain needs; interfere with brain function; and damage brain cells.

That’s why stress relief is essential. Build in time to do something you enjoy, advises Dr. Lottor: get a massage, swim, play with the cat. “This isn’t selfish,” she notes. “If you’re not happy, no one in your family will be.”

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