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Mental Aerobics, Diet to
Stave Off 'Senior Moments'

Excerpt By Patricia Reaney,

LONDON (Reuters) - If those 'senior moments' -- when you can't remember why you opened the refrigerator door or where you left your keys -- are becoming more frequent, mental aerobics and a healthy brain diet may help.

Just as bodies require more maintenance with the passing years, so do brains, which scientists now know show signs of aging as early as the 20s and 30s.

"Brain aging starts at a very young age, younger than any of us had imagined and these processes continue gradually over the years," said Dr. Gary Small, the director of the Center on Aging at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The process may be speeded up a bit by a genetic risk and pushed even faster by unhealthy lifestyle choices.

"Genetics is only about a third of what predicts brain aging. The other two thirds has to do with our environment and lifestyle choices that we make," said Small.

"Alzheimer's disease, or vascular dementia, are the end result of this process of brain aging."

An estimated 12 million people around the globe suffer from Alzheimer's. The incurable, progressive disease that clogs up brains and robs people of memory and mental ability is set to explode as more baby boomers reach 65 years and older.

By 2050 the number of sufferers could hit 45 million.

Scientists can now spot early signs of the illness in the brains of people long before symptoms develop and drug companies are plowing millions into the search for a cure.

But Small believes, that just like heart disease and cancer, people can take preventive measures to keep their brains healthy and alert to stave off the ravages of the disease.

"I'm convinced that it is never too early to get started on a mental or brain-fitness program," he said.


In his book, "The Memory Bible," the 51-year-old neuroscientist lists what he refers to as the 10 commandments for keeping the brain young. They include training memory, building skills, minimizing stress, mental aerobics, brain food and a healthy lifestyle.

Commandment number 10 sums it all up -- don't forget the first nine.

It's a game plan for keeping brain cells sparking and neural networks in tip-top shape.

"Misplacing your keys a couple of times doesn't mean you should start labelling your cabinets. Memory loss is not an inevitable consequence of aging. Our brains can fight back," he said.

Small provides the weapons for a full-scale attack.

Simple memory tests give an indication of what you are up against and tools such as look, snap and connect are designed to make sure that important names and dates are never forgotten.

"So if you wanted to learn names and faces, for example, you meet Mrs. Beatty and you notice (look) a distinguishing facial feature, maybe a prominent eyebrow," said Small.

"You associate the first thing that comes to mind (snap). I think of the actor Warren Beatty so I create a mental snapshot of Warren Beatty kissing her brow (connect)."

Small admits it may sound a bit strange but he says it works.


Research has shown the people who are mentally active during their 40s and 50s are less likely to develop memory problems which support the "use it or lose it" theory.

"We have evidence from our PET (positron emission tomography) scan studies. In people in their 20s and 30s we can begin to see a difference in the function in the memory centers in the brain. We found that people who have a college education have better brain activity at that age than people who do not have a college education," said Small.

To get the brain working better he advises people to begin with simple warm-up exercises and workouts for both the left and right side of the brain.

The exercises become increasingly difficult and can be expanded with brain teasers, puzzles, learning a foreign language or taking up a musical instrument.

"Mental aerobics could be anything from doing crossword puzzles and writing with your left hand if you are right handed or learning a language. It could be anything that is fun that people enjoy doing," said Small.

He also recommends physical exercise, a low-fat diet and eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, avocados, walnuts and brazil nuts, and fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants including prunes, raisins, blueberries, broccoli, beets and onions in addition to reducing stress.

"Your body pumps out stress hormones like cortisone that have a negative impact on the brain memory centers," he explained.

It is no coincidence that the food and exercise advice is similar to recommendations for reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer because what is good for the body is also good for the brain.

Small is confident that in the next five to 10 years there will be major breakthroughs in research into Alzheimer's disease and refinements in brain imaging techniques will improve the diagnosis of the illness.

"The drug discovery is going to be speeded up because of new findings, particularly in imaging, and I think we will have new drugs. It may not be a vaccine," he said.

"We will be able to use those drugs on people who don't have Alzheimer's yet but who have the signal in their brain. We will be able to track whether it is clearing out that signal."

But repairing damaged brain cells is still a long way off. Scientists think it will be easier to protect the brain, than to repair it.

He envisions a future when a blood test or hair sample will provide a biological brain image profile and a computer will print out a healthy brain diet and what medicines are needed so doctors can tailor prevention to the individual.

"The Memory Bible emphasizes that there are things we can do now to improve our memory and maximise brain health and stave off Alzheimer's disease," Small added.

Reference Source 104


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