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Mind Over Matter

02/27/2015 10:36AM ● Published by Style

"I would have introduced you,” my friend told me after greeting an acquaintance recently, “but I couldn’t remember her name.” Then, laughing, she added: “I’ve known her for years. I must be getting Alzheimer’s.” We’ve all had similar experiences and jest about getting older, but privately wonder: Are we OK? According to four local experts, the answer is a non-reassuring “maybe.”
The number one cause of memory loss, by far, is aging. Brain scans clearly show that as we grow older we lose brain cells. “Nearly everyone loses some memory with age,” says John Schafer, MD, and a neurologist with Mercy Medical Group. “Brains shrink as we grow older.” In our 80s and 90s, a chilling 30-40 percent of us will have Alzheimer’s disease—the most common and most dreaded form of dementia, in which brain cells die off rapidly.

So, when do we worry? “Forgetting names or even having trouble recalling words is pretty common,” says Shawn Kile, MD, and a neurologist with the Sutter Neuroscience Institute Memory Clinic. “It becomes worrisome when memory loss grows progressively worse or other cognitive functions (such as reasoning and language) become impaired.” Kaiser Permanente Neurologist Kaho Wong, MD, echoes that sentiment. “Occasional forgetfulness as we age is normal because we get more things piling up in our brains, but there’s a difference in forgetting the password of an email account you don’t use frequently versus having trouble navigating the email program itself.”
Sarah Tomaszewski Farias, PhD, and associate professor in neurology at UC Davis, notes certain red flags when interviewing her clients. Some of them include: Can the person recall information with hints? Does a loved one have concerns? Does the person forget to pay bills, let food burn, get lost while driving or completely forget a recent event?

There’s no cure for memory loss, but there is some good news: More than half of us will remain cognitively intact—and the key may be our lifestyle choices.

1/Get physical exercise

“Exercise,” Schafer says, “pretty reliably decreases the rate of memory loss.” We don’t have to run marathons, but Farias cautions that it doesn’t mean taking a stroll either. She recommends a brisk 45-minute walk, one that increases your heart rate, four to five times a week.” Wong adds, “[You] have to sweat—there’s no easy way out.”

2/Never stop learning

Challenge your brain, Schafer urges; study a foreign language, take piano lessons or paint—all help build new circuits in your brain. 

3/Engage in social activities

“Socializing is one of the best cognitive exercises you can do for your brain,” says Kile. Large social networks may stimulate the formation of brain synapses.

4/Eat healthy

Kile and Wong recommend a Mediterranean diet, which may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s. Kile also encourages adding a source of omega 3—preferably from fatty fish. A diet low in sodium and cholesterol may help prevent vascular dementia, Wong adds.

5/PROTECT of your brain

Avoid injury. Wear a helmet when you bike or ski. Don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Choose foods wisely. According to Schafer, “Your brain health is the sum of what has happened to [it throughout] your life.”

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