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Spring 2004

Mental Activity Helps Prevent Memory Loss

Increasing evidence suggests that mental exercise—from crossword puzzles to learning a foreign language—can help stave off mental decline in people with mild memory loss.

By age 40 or 50, many people will experience age-associated memory impairment, characterized by such lapses as forgetting names, phone numbers, and where the car keys were last placed. “Genetics—what you inherit from your parents— accounts for only one-third of the risk for dementia or rapid brain aging. That means the other two-thirds is non-genetic and partially under an individual’s control,” explains Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Center on Aging, which conducts five-week memory-training courses to help adults of all ages develop skills to improve memory retention and recall.

As brains age, the synapses —or connections between neurons—begin to function less efficiently. Diseases associated with age, including heart disease and strokes, may cause memory impairment, as can some of the many medications taken by older people in poor health. Even young, healthy people become forgetful, due to hectic lives, sleep deprivation, and, for women, hormonal swings.

Adopting healthier habits and stimulating the brain with mental exercises are key to mental health and mental performance. Dr. Small, author of The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young, identifies four areas of key importance: diet, stress reduction, physical conditioning, and mental activity and memory training.

“Positive lifestyle changes—getting enough sleep, exercising and reducing stress—and wise nutritional choices provide the brain’s cells with extra protection against wear and tear. Eat foods rich in antioxidants (e.g., broccoli and berries) and omega 3 (e.g., olive oil and fish),” suggests Dr. Small. “And mental training helps your brain’s neurons become more efficient, so it takes less effort and energy for them to operate well.”

Further, be sure to take medications prescribed for conditions such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. “These will protect your brain so that you can achieve better brain health over time,” Dr. Small observes.

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