Neuroscientists have some good news for us.
"Don't automatically expect that your memory will go to pot as you age," says Dr. James L. McGaugh, director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California in Irvine.
Forgetting names and what you went to the fridge for, only to remember a short time later, is a normal age-related moment. Although at times frustrating, this type of forgetfulness is not a precursor to or indicative of Alzheimer's disease. Only about 15 percent of adults over age 65 develop degenerative memory loss.
You generally begin to notice what scientists have termed "age-related cognitive decline" around age 50, but it can have its roots as early as age 30. And research has found that cigarette smokers over age 40 have faster memory loss than nonsmokers.
Studies show that the number of our brain cells do begin to decrease as we age. But here's the good news: It is now known that if you continue to be mentally and physically active, new connections between the cells can be created even into your later years. Today, researchers are telling us that just as staying out of the sun can prevent wrinkles, there are actions that we can take now to help ensure tack-sharp alertness in years to come.
Healthy lifestyle habits needed for keeping our bodies fit are also needed for keeping our 3-pound brains in shape:
Use it or lose it: Studies show increased brain fitness in adults who challenge their brain to learn new tasks. It is believed that activities that exercise the brain such as traveling, reading, writing, working crossword puzzles and playing board or card games can help prevent memory decline.
It is also recommended to challenge the brain by introducing activities that you have not done before — perhaps learn a foreign language, take a continuing education course, develop a new hobby or learn to play a musical instrument. Try going to the grocery store without a list and see how many items you can remember. You might want to tuck a list of the items you want in a pocket for a "just in case" moment.
Another memory exercise involves learning one new word a day. At the end of a week, check how many words you know the meaning of. In his book, The Memory Bible, Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, says that any conscious effort to tease your brain, such as brushing teeth with your left hand if you are right-handed, can potentially create new brain cell connections.
Get off the couch: When you exercise, muscles begin to use oxygen at a higher rate, increasing the blood flow throughout the body, including the memory-related brain area. And just as exercise helps to keep the arteries to the heart open and unclogged, exercise does the same for the blood vessels in the brain.
Even exercise in small doses can help sharpen your memory, but it is most important for memory improvement to exercise consistently — at least three to five times a week for 30 minutes. Aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging, swimming, dancing and biking are good exercises to get your heart pumping. You should also include a weight training component in your exercise program.
Daily relaxation: The stress response may be helpful in certain emergency situations, but if continued for long periods of time, it can have a negative effect on both the body and mind. Chronic stress, by activating the stress hormone cortisol, is a major contributor to memory loss. It does not matter if the source of the stress is real or imagined, physical or emotional, there is a biochemical and physiological reaction to the pending stress.
Though we can't totally void our lives of stress, we can counter the negative effects by introducing relaxation techniques into our daily lives. Massage therapy, deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, tai chi and progressive muscle relaxation all reduce stress hormones by relaxing muscles and slowing down your heart rate and blood pressure. Try setting aside 10 to 20 minutes a day to practice relaxation skills.
Nutritionally fit: A healthy brain also depends on healthy nutrition. One of the causes of memory decline is free-radical damage (molecules that damage cells), which makes it important for us to nourish our bodies with antioxidants that work to combat the damage from the free radicals. Antioxidants help improve blood flow to the body as well as to the brain.
To keep our bodies and minds functioning at optimal level, we must limit animal fats and increase foods such as fresh fruits and veggies, low-fat dairy products, whole grains and fresh seafood. The vitamin C found in fresh fruits and vegetables helps preserve memory.
Researchers at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University have listed the top 10 most antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies. The fruits, in order of antioxidant value, are prunes, raisins, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, plums, oranges, red grapes and cherries. The top veggie performers are kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, broccoli florets, beets, red bell peppers, onions, corn and eggplant.
If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning any exercise program. Write to Sally Anderson, a trainer, in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.
Relaxation breathing: Deep breathing is a powerful tool for relaxation and can be practiced almost anywhere; it is the basis for many other relaxation techniques. The key is to breathe deeply from the abdomen, not the upper chest, as is the everyday way of breathing. You will be inhaling more oxygen, which will decrease the tension and shortness of breath.
Sit comfortably with back straight or lie on a flat surface. Place one hand on chest and one hand on stomach. As you slowly inhale through your nose, the hand on the stomach should rise while the hand on the chest moves very little. Slowly exhale through your mouth, feeling that you are pushing the air out, while contracting abdominal muscles.
Warrior at the wall (above): This yoga position improves balance while strengthening legs, arms and shoulders, and it stretches thighs and hips. Stand about 3 feet away from a wall. Exhale as you bend forward from hips, extending arms forward until fingertips touch the wall; torso and arms will be parallel to floor. Inhale while raising left leg until parallel to floor. Hold position for four breaths; repeat with opposite leg.
Legs on ball: This relaxing posture improves circulation to legs, hips and lower back. Lie on the floor with arms relaxed by your sides. With buttocks almost touching a large exercise ball, place heels and calves on top of the ball. Practice relaxation breathing for five or 10 minutes. You could also use a chair for this exercise instead of a ball.
Balance with an oblique crunch (right): Standing with feet hip-width apart, stretch left hand (with or without weight) overhead until you feel a stretch in your left side. Bring left elbow down to side, while bringing left knee toward elbow. Do 10 to 12 repetitions then change sides and repeat.