Preventing Memory Loss: Brain-Boosting Tips for a Fit Wit
Americans, and humans around the world, are generally living longer lives than their grandparents and parents did. But are the “new” senior years destined to be mentally productive? Medical and science experts say there are proven ways we can positively influence our future brains. The best part? They’re easy steps to take, and don’t require anything not likely to be fun!
Exercise is known to help our brains stay healthy. But why?
In a study by the University of British Columbia (UBC), 86 women aged 70-80 years diagnosed with “probable mild cognitive impairment” were randomly assigned to a six-month, twice-weekly exercise program. The programs included either mild aerobic activities or weight training. The researchers discovered that regularly getting the blood pumping with aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for learning and long-term memory. Weight and resistance training did not.
Philip D. Harvey, Ph.D., an expert on aging and mental health at the University of Miami Health System’s Miller School of Medicine, says that follow-up studies showed a similar relationship with other parts of the brain.
“When we routinely exercise enough to increase the heart rate, it helps reduce inflammation and protect our existing cells,” he explains.
“Our bodies also release neurochemicals during cardiovascular exercise. These carry growth factors that help create new cells in certain brain regions. They also increase the efficiency of the blood vessels in our brains.”
Are you getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night?
If so, congratulations! You’re a brain booster. Achieving daily recommended sleep amounts helps our brains focus. It ties to keeping extra pounds off, too—needed for both physical and mental health.
“Getting ample sleep also helps us be more energized the next day,” explains Dr. Harvey. “That offers a double benefit: we are then more apt to exercise, and that leads to the growth factor increase and brain protective benefits.”
Dr. Harvey says achieving uninterrupted REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and getting enough slow-wave sleep (SWS), commonly called deep sleep, have both been found to enhance long-term memory, as well.
Can we train our brains?
Many articles recommend crosswords and games like Sudoku or other puzzles as ways to fend off memory loss. Doing these activities can sharpen our problem-solving skills. But these practices have no direct benefit on memory retention.
“To make gains requires subtle but continuous increases in mental challenges,” explains Dr. Harvey. “Just like aerobic fitness, working at the same level of difficulty does not build up new capacities. We can’t prove that you get better, just that you don’t decline.”
However, there are certain games that can help boost memory power. And their origin may surprise you.
“Think back to when you got a driver’s license,” says Dr. Harvey. “At that time, you often found it difficult to focus. It requires both speed of processing and multitasking. Now, part of the test procedure often involves looking at a screen. We’re asked to inform the test administrator when a small image (e.g. a stop sign) or a light suddenly appears or moves to another part of that screen. These exercises are a type of cognitive training program known as speed training.”
According to Dr. Harvey, those DMV tests got scientists thinking. The Advanced Cognitive Training in Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) trial, published in 2014, examined the impact of cognitive training programs (memory, reasoning, or speed of processing) on initially healthy older adults. A decade after the study began, researchers recorded a 29% decrease in dementia risk among those who had participated in the training programs over their peers. The positive effects of speed training were most clearly visible after 10 years.
“The more sessions a person took part in, the greater the gain,” explains Dr. Harvey. “What was remarkable was the extremely small number of sessions required for benefit. Ten sessions of 45 minutes each, followed by two follow-up sessions a year apart was most effective.”
Putting the pieces together
So how do we create our own personal brain boosting plans? Dr. Harvey recommends combining what works.
Increase your daily aerobic exercise level.
It will protect and grow your blood vessels and brain cells for learning and long-term memory. You don’t need to run. The data suggests that it is all about calories expended. You can burn plenty of calories walking.
It helps your brain get organized and boosts your energy level for your newly added exercise schedule.
Be a selective brain gamer.
Only a few online brain games are backed by actual research. So be wary of inflated claims. Dr. Harvey recommends games on Posit Science Brain Fitness (also known as Brain HQ) and Happy Neuron as the best places to start.
“Most importantly, don’t worry about having to do too much,” he says. “Even moderate added activity, extra sleep and 45 minutes twice a week of brain games instead of watching TV can make an actual difference. You’ll notice it and will thank yourself down the road.”
Written by a staff writer at the University of Miami Health System.