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It May Be Easier Than You Think
How to Mind Your Memory

Nobody wants to look or feel old. We certainly don’t want to think old. From forgetting your keys to struggling to recall an acquaintance’s name, many people worry about their memory, and over time those worries increase. But addressing your memory lapses is easier than you think. Smart lifestyle choices can help keep your brain and memory in tip-top shape.

Train your brain through exercise

One of the single most important things people can do to stave off declining brain function is to exercise. According to health experts at the Stanford Center for Longevity, regular aerobic exercise has been shown to improve attention, reasoning, and components of memory.

Aim for a minimum of four to five moderately intense, 20- to-30 minute, aerobic exercise sessions per week. What’s “moderately intense?” Brisk walking counts. You should be breathing hard enough so that carrying on a conversation takes a little effort. If you’re gasping for breath, back off the pace. If walking isn’t your thing, try:

  • A quick game of hoops
  • Playing tag with your kids
  • A bike ride with the family
  • A swim at the gym
  • A session on cardio equipment, such as an elliptical machine or stair stepper

Remember: always check with your doctor before starting a new exercise plan.

Feed your brain properly

The same foods that contribute to clogged arteries around your heart (cardiovascular disease), also contribute to clogged arteries around your brain (known as cerebrovascular disease). The nutrients found in healthy foods can protect the brain against everyday wear and tear too. Put your money where your mouth is:
  • Fat focus: Skip processed foods such as chips, crackers, and donuts. Find healthy fat in nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish. If you don’t eat fatty fish, such as salmon, a couple of times per week, ask your doctor if a fish oil supplement is right for you.
  • Go for color: Bright red, purple, orange, yellow, and green vegetables and fruit are best. Enjoy fresh or frozen blueberries on your oatmeal. Try carrots and hummus dip for a snack. Include broccoli and red peppers in your next stir-fry.
  • Calorie count: Try to eat only the calories you need to maintain a healthy weight. Obesity and overweight increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Slimming down can add years of clear thinking to your life!

Be supplement savvy

As people age, they may not absorb vitamins and minerals as well as they should.

  • On B vitamins, in particular, people often come up short. Folate and vitamin B12 deficiencies can contribute to poor brain function.
  • The herb ginkgo may have benefit for some people. A recent study cast doubt on ginkgo’s benefits, but many herbal medicine experts point out that numerous previous studies do show a brain boost from ginkgo. (If you have heard conflicting information on ginkgo’s effectiveness, see the extra information below.)
  • Finally, consider acetyl-L-carnitine, a nutrient that can help the body process energy from food into energy for cells in the body. About 25% of our daily calorie intake goes toward keeping the brain humming. Efficient use of energy is an important part of keeping the noggin healthy.

If you are considering these or any other supplements, talk to your doctor about which ones might be right for you. Dietary supplements can interfere with medications, so stay safe by clearing supplement use with your healthcare provider.

Engage your brain

Finally, staying engaged in life is another way to keep the brain sharp. Enjoy card games or crossword puzzles. Read a good book. Take up a new hobby. And make sure you have regular visits with family and friends: strong social connections are an important part of healthy aging.

The Ginkgo Question

The herb Ginkgo biloba has been studied and used for years as a way to manage mild age-related decline in thinking (cognition), and more serious dysfunction caused by Alzheimer’s and related diseases. The results of the recently-published Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory (GEM) study has generated a lot of press that might leave some people with the impression that ginkgo is ineffective. But, just like most science, the results of a single study—especially when taken out of context—are not the whole story. In fact, ginkgo has been shown in other studies to produce a modest improvement in cognitive function in people who already have Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

Study conclusions contain no GEMs of wisdom

GEM was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 3,069 participants, who were 72 to 96 years old at the time of entry into the study. The researchers compared changes in cognitive function over time in people who took 120 mg of ginkgo twice a day with changes in those who took a placebo.

After following the study participants for about six years, the researchers noted no differences in the rates of decline in memory, attention, visual-spatial abilities, language, and higher-level thinking (executive function) between the two groups. The authors acknowledged some study limitations, but these were not reported in most news stories. Organizations such as the American Botanical Council have given them more attention, pointing out, for example, that the average age of participants was 79 years, which is much older than the typical age at which many people first begin using ginkgo to improve mental performance. Other factors, such as the high drop-out rate (over 40%) and some baseline data that wasn’t part of the study’s original design make this topic worth continued examination.

What’s the bottom line about ginkgo, cognitive function, and memory?

While the new study adds useful information to the picture on ginkgo and cognitive function, it is not the final word. As mentioned, studies to date suggest that ginkgo produces a modest improvement in cognitive function in people who already have Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. According to Alan R. Gaby, MD, chief science editor at Aisle7, the research shows that in these people, benefits have been seen to persist for a year or longer with continued use. While ginkgo has not been shown to help people with normal cognitive function or mild age-related cognitive impairment, since Alzheimer’s and other more serious dementias have very few treatment options, the potential benefits to people with those diseases should be explored.

(JAMA 2009; 302:2663–70)

Copyright © 2010 Aisle7. All rights reserved. Republication or redistribution of the Aisle7® content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Aisle7. Healthnotes Newsletter is for educational or informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose or provide treatment for any condition. If you have any concerns about your own health, you should always consult with a healthcare professional. Aisle7 shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon. AISLE7 is a registered trademark of Aisle7 in the United States and other jurisdictions. 

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