Lifestyle changes can help memory and protect your brain
Weill Medical College Center for Women’s Healthcare Women’s Health Advisor, December
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
“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 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.
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
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.”
Dr. Lottor also recommends simple relaxation techniques: breathing exercises, meditation,
and total muscle relaxation (described in her book). And, she emphasizes, get enough
sleep. “Make sure you get enough sleep for you. Most people need about 8 hours.”
Lack of sleep only intensifies stress.
A brain-protecting diet
Lower-fat diets reduce Alzheimer’s risk, so minimize red meat in favor of chicken
and choose low-fat dairy foods. Do eat salmon and other cold-water fish, walnuts,
and avocados, whose omega-3 fats actually protect brain cells. Avoid white flour
and sugar, which cause spikes in blood sugar, increasing the risk for diabetes and
stroke; instead, consume the complex carbohydrates in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Some foods—including blueberries, strawberries, tomatoes, and broccoli—contain antioxidants
that directly protect the DNA in brain cells from damage.
Chew thoroughly, since digestion begins in the mouth. “There’s no sense in eating
a great diet if you’re not digesting it,” notes Dr. Lottor.