LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates Smart Behavior


She walks into your school board meeting. You know she was there last month. You even talked to her about...something. What was it again? Was she the one who'd had knee replacement-or was it her hip? Why can't you remember?

The good news is that forgetting this kind of information is common-and generally not cause to be afraid that you're on the brink of developing Alzheimer's disease. The bad news is that memory lapses are typically a sign of the gradual aging of the brain, a human phenomenon that affects everyone.

I recently attended a series of lectures by Dr. Michael Raffi, MD, Ph.D, director of the Memory Disorders Cliic at University of California, San Diego. He said, "It appears that 83% of the healthy elderly have, at times, difficulty recalling names or words, 55% percent can't recall where they put things, 49% aren't sure if they told someone something, 41% forget a task even after they've started it and 40% lose the thread of a conversation. That's frustrating, but also, healthy aging." Ugh.

Every brain ages differently, and whether or not it will reach the plaque-and-tangle threshold that results in Alzheimer's depends on a variety of factors. "For the average person, only about one-third of the rate our brain ages and of our risk of dementia comes from genetics," says Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of The Memory Prescription (Hyperion 2004) and The Memory Bible (Hyperion 2002).. "Two-thirds has to do with our environment and the lifestyle choices we make today. We're learning from research that we have more control over our memory than most of us realize."

In fact, mental-fitness efforts appear to produce surprisingly powerful results. At UCLA, brain stress tests and MRI brain-imaging tests indicated that after just 2 weeks of memory training (involving diet, exercise, stress reduction and mental-fitness training), volunteers showed dramatically improved memory performance and brain efficiency, scoring higher on memory tasks and using less brainpower to do it. Leisure World is a good example of how much interest there is in this arena. In recent years Brain Fitness classes and support groups for computer driven software have been popular for residents of all ages.

Folks who participate in these programs soon become aware of how profound they can be-in some cases moreso than what is seen using medication. Of course, biological study and drug intervention are still critical, but the research on the impact of lifestyle factors is so strong it can't be ignored.

For example, Small's 14-day memory-improvement plan includes an antioxidant-rich diet high in vegetables, fruits, nuts and fish, moderate in alcohol consumption and low in meat and high-fat dairy products; a comprehensive fitness program; stress reduction and relaxation through activities like breathing exercises, yoga and meditation; and 15-30 minutes per day of mental-fitness exercises, such as brain teasers, puzzles, and word and image recall tests.

In my experience there are three steps that can help you pump up your memory muscles.

1: Pay Attention

Paying attention "in the moment" is the gateway to memory.

Practices such as meditation, relaxation and stress reduction techniques can be helpful for developing the ability to focus and be attentive. If you're thinking about your dentist appointment while having lunch with a friend you won't remember much about the conversation. Instead, create a powerful memory by observing what your friend is wearing or her voice character or movement patterns to create a powerful memory.

2: Connect to a Word or Image Cue

Make your experiences relevant using mnemonics-that is, by creating an image or word cue to refer to when you want to recall the memory. Children learn the "ABC:" song to remember the alphabet. I remember the names of the Great Lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior) using the acronym, HOMES. You might consciously conjur up the image of a woman in a golf cart with her two grandchildren to remember that Sarah has two grandchildren and loves to play golf. When I meet someone named Joe I always associate it with the phrase, "Joe goes with the flow." In short, any cue that is rich, multidimensional and relevant to you can help you remember a name or evnt.

Daniel L. Schacter, MD, chair of the department of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (Houghton Mifflin 2001), agrees that vivid imagery is a highly useful memory-encoding tool. "Asking questions about what you wish to remember will force you to elaborate on it. For example, what are the distinctive facial features of a new friend or which acquaintance does he or she remind me of?"

The ability to create these elaborate images may well be more powerful than any herb, hormone or gene, notes Schacter. "Given a choice between taking ginkgo or investing some time and effort into developing elaborate encoding strategies, healthy people would be well advised to focus on the latter approach."

3: Use It or Lose It

Repeating a name, or reviewing information or an image, helps it stick. "When you remember something, a cluster of neurons is firing together, and the more often they fire together, the easier it is for them to fire together again," says Arden. "In other words, the more you practice remembering something, the easier it is to remember."

Because memory has to be practiced to be preserved, it's important to be wary of multitasking and media overload. "Recent research has made it clear that divided attention dampens memory. Even if you can do 10 things at once throughout the day, the depth to which you remember any of it is likely to decrease," says Arden. "Overstimulation by media can create a numbness that hinders your ability to remember, because you're not absorbing information-you're just being bombarded by it."

As mounting scientific evidence shows that prevention may work as well for the brain as it does for the heart, experts agree that although the process of improving memory is different for everyone, healthy eating, physical exercise, stress reduction and mental-fitness exercises should all be part of any "boot camp for the brain" program.

On the other hand, as Raffi reminded me, "If you forget where you put your car keys, don't worry. If you forget you own a car, worry." He warned that any abrupt and severe loss of memory is an indication that a doctor should be consulted. He added other memory loss factors that signal medical help is warranted including:

  • repeatedly getting lost on a familiar route
  • having difficulty finding words to express yourself
  • being unable to identify common objects
  • not knowing where you are or what time of day it is
  • asking the same question over and over (when you're not trying to get a different answer)

Meantime, those sunglasses you can't find are perched on your head!!

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LIFESTYLES by Ronda Gates
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