A 60-year-old Beachwood woman whose parents lost their memories at about age 70 wrote for advice, worried she might lose her memory, too. There are ways to minimize that possibility, even though one in five will experience some form of brain drain, ranging from fuzzy thinking to Alzheimer’s disease.
While some causes of memory loss are genetic, you can build a bigger brain and postpone memory loss. One study found that there are nine risk factors for Alzheimer’s, ranging from obesity to inflammation to plaque in the arteries, and most of them are modifiable.
Because your brain is plastic (a good word in brain talk), it is flexible enough to grow and strengthen if you empower it to do so. Some specific tactics for creating a brain built for a centenarian follow:
• Avoid foods with sugar. Sugar for the slightly and very diseased brain is like cocaine; short-term increases in sugar improve function, but chronic, slightly raised sugar levels, even if you don’t have diabetes or pre-diabetes, will affect your memory. That excess blood glucose in that sugar doughnut (made worse by its saturated fat) and from the sugar in your coffee cause inflammation, which damages brain cells. Higher blood sugar is linked to a smaller hippocampus, which means poorer ability to form and store new memories. The same thing (or at least its rat equivalent) occurs when mouse were fed the equivalent of a liter of sugared soda a day.
• Manage stress or eradicate your stressor. Stress is the greatest cause of memory loss linked to a shrinking hippocampus. It seems that the inflammation caused by stress prunes old and makes new connections for establishing memories more difficult. You can use meditation and behavioral modification to control your reaction to stressful events, or learn to deal with the stress and eradicate its cause or causes.
• Do physical activity. Any physical activity for 45 minutes three times a week, even walking, expands your hippocampal region. New data would indicate that maybe intense exercise for 20 seconds three times in a 10-minute period three times a week may be even better, but check with your doctor before increasing the intensity of your exercise program.
• Learn something new. Try a new skill, hobby or game, or even try to find new directions – without GPS – to a place you visit regularly. These will create more connections that also help enlarge your hippocampus, lowering your risk of memory loss.
• Take in enough magnesium, foliate, B12, B6, and Vitamin D3. Magnesium ensures strong links between your brain cells, so you have a big network ready to solve problems. You need 420 milligrams daily, but most of us fall short. Turn to brown rice, almonds, hazelnuts, spinach, shredded wheat, lima beans, and bananas to top off your tank, or just get ½ a multimineral and vitamin supplement twice a day. The B vitamins are key for brain functioning, too. Vitamin D3, like DHA Omega-3, protects your DNA and seems to prevent damage from free radicals (rogue oxygen molecules that attack DNA). Aim for 1,000IU daily from a D3 supplement. Get it measured; you want to aim for a level over 35.
• Don’t short-change sleep. When you’re busy, it’s easy to say the thing you want to sacrifice is sleep. But you need sleep for lots of reasons, and one of the biggies is that it acts as a brain scrub and gets your brain in condition for optimal learning, problem-solving and memory.
Dr. Michael Roizen writes about wellness for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungDrMike.