If the inability to recall where you put your keys, parked your car, or remember the name of someone you just met has you convinced you’re losing your mind, you’re not alone — or off the mark. As you get older, your brain loses mass as cells die out, and memory goes with them.
“It’s a very gradual process, but studies have found changes in the brains of people in their early 30s,” says neuroscientist Gary Small, director of the Memory and Aging Center at UCLA. “The risk for getting Alzheimer’s disease gets higher and higher as we age.”
With increased life expectancy, chances of developing some form of dementia increase even further. “When it comes to brain aging, it’s one-third genetics, two-thirds lifestyle factors,” says Small, and while you can’t do much about your DNA, you can absolutely control the rest — and it can make a real difference.
“A healthy lifestyle protects your brain,” says Dr. Small, enumerating four major components: diet, stress reduction, mental activity and exercise. He recommends the Mediterranean Diet, one high in antioxidant fruits and vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, olive oil, and flaxseed. “You want to avoid processed and fast foods with a high glycemic index that spike blood sugar. It’s not good for your heart or your brain. And you want to control your caloric intake. Overweight-related illnesses like hypertension, high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes increase the risk of strokes and Alzheimer’s,” he cautions.
Daily stress may be a fact of life, “but it’s not good for your brain. It’s not good for your memory,” says Small, citing a Stanford University study that showed shrinkage in the memory centers of animal subjects under chronic stress. In another study, the stress hormone cortisol had a similar effect on human volunteers, temporarily impairing their memory abilities. “Minimizing stress and getting a good night’s sleep is tremendously important in helping you focus.”
The co-author (with his wife, Gigi Vorgan) of “The Memory Bible,” “The Memory Prescription,” and “The Longevity Bible,” which include memory tests and exercises, Small says that when it comes to improving memory, doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku can’t hurt, and in fact trading off between different types of games can be “like cross-training your brain,” although they don’t necessarily translate to daily activity. “There’s no absolute proof that mental aerobics slows the process” of memory loss, “and it’s not a guarantee it’s going to protect you against Alzheimer’s disease. But our group and many others have developed mental techniques that you can use to improve your everyday memory skills.”
Because short-term memory is more transient and less stable, we have to work harder to make things we want to recall stick in our brains. “We don’t remember things because we’re just not paying attention,” says Small. The key is “look, snap, connect. Take a moment to focus. Then take a mental picture of what you want to remember. And then connect those mental snapshots. To remember that I parked in Lot 3B, I see three large bumblebees hovering over my car. It sounds silly, but it really works.”
Subjects who learn this technique in the memory training course and one-day “brain boot camp” offered at UCLA can significantly improve their memory, Dr. Small says, citing his own study involving program volunteers and a control group.
“We found improvement in verbal memory, and when we looked at the brain PET scans there was a highly significant change in the frontal lobe — the part of the brain that controls short-term memory. So you can alter your neural networks in a very brief period of time using this kind of approach.” Many universities, hospitals, and senior centers offer similar programs, Small says.
For optimizing brain health, physical exercise is even more crucial than mental aerobics. “If there’s one thing you can do to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease it’s to get involved in a regular physical exercise program. One study found that if you just walk briskly 10 to 15 minutes a day you will lower your risk of Alzheimer’s,” Small says. “There’s scientific evidence to show us that physical exercise is more brain-protective than any of the other factors. So if you do nothing else, get some exercise.”
Also on Small’s brain boosting to-do list: stop smoking, “because it’s the cause of many brain-related illnesses” like stroke and heart attack. As for herbal supplements purported to improve memory, such as gingko biloba, he advises exercising caution: “Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s safe. The level of science that’s needed to sell them is much lower than for prescription drugs.”
Small is encouraged by studies of the supplement curcumin, found in the Indian spice turmeric that’s used in curry and has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-amyloid properties (amyloids are cell-clogging fibrous protein deposits). “There’s a much lower rate of Alzheimer’s in India, and people who eat Indian food once a week perform better on memory tests,” Dr. Small says. Curcumin is available in capsule form, “but most of that doesn’t get into your brain, so you’re better off consuming it,” he says. “We’re working with a formulation that we think can get into the brain. We’re testing that right now.”
Small, who chronicles his most bizarre psychiatry cases in his book, “The Naked Lady Who Stood on Her Head: A Psychiatrist’s Stories of His Most Bizarre Cases,” is encouraged by new developments in tests and treatments for diagnosing and preventing memory loss. “I’m optimistic that we’re going to see some major breakthroughs in the next five to 10 years,” he says.