When patients visit Gary Small, MD (FEL ’83), they often are looking for a pill to magically ameliorate their memory challenges. Sometimes they’re disappointed that his advice for maintaining a healthy memory isn’t so different from what your internist might suggest to maintain a healthy body: eat right, exercise and get enough sleep.
“Our brains are aging just like our bodies,” says Dr. Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. “Research shows that the more healthy-lifestyle behaviors somebody engages in, the less likely they are to complain about their memory.”
Dr. Small has written eight popular books on memory, most recently 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain (Humanix Books, 2015), coauthored with his wife Gigi Vorgan. The Longevity Center runs a variety of programs, including Brain Boot Camp, an intensive one-time course for individuals with age-related memory concerns, and Memory Maintenance, a customized program to improve memory and brain health.
Dr. Small’s team has found that it’s possible to improve our memories through relatively simple strategies and techniques. “Look, snap, connect,” for example, calls out three essential steps: focus attention, create a mental snapshot of the information you want to recall later and make the snapshots meaningful by linking them visually.
While there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, Dr. Small says maintaining healthy habits can help stave off its symptoms. “Our programs help people create a lifestyle to bolster brain health,” he says. “They also teach them ways to compensate for the lowered function that naturally occurs with aging.”
A few key factors:
• Mental stimulation: Research shows that lifelong learning is associated with a lower risk for Alzheimer’s, but the cause-effect relationship hasn’t been proven. “Doing crossword puzzles, you may get better at those puzzles, but it may not transfer to your everyday life,” Dr. Small says.
• Nutrition: Being overweight doubles one’s risk for Alzheimer’s, as does diabetes. Obesity quadruples the risk. Dr. Small says some research has shown that eating five-to-seven servings of fruits and vegetables daily provides the antioxidants that may retard damage to the brain’s DNA.
• Exercise: While aerobic exercise and strength training are beneficial, even just brisk walking for 15 minutes daily may lower Alzheimer’s risk, according to some studies. “You don’t have to become a triathlete,” Dr. Small says, “but when you get your heart pumping, you get more nutrients and oxygen to your brain cells.”
• Social Engagement: Social interactions can both lower stress and stimulate the mind. Studies show that 10 minutes of a stimulating conversation is better for cognitive health than watching a TV show.
“The triple threat for Alzheimer’s is going for a walk with a friend,” Dr. Small says. “You get the cardiovascular conditioning, being with an empathic person will lower your stress and having a conversation works out your brain cells.”