You may know that your brain typically weighs only 3 pounds and is the most complex and least understood organ. What you may not know is that the physical and mental lifestyle choices you select can play a role in protecting your brain against many of the effects of aging.
Some age-related memory loss is normal, but there is increasing evidence that you can reinforce memory skills as you age. While people who have been physically active throughout their lives are less likely to experience cognitive decline in later years, recent research has found that even 30 minutes a day of moderately intense physical activity can increase cognitive abilities in older adults. This includes reducing the amount of time it takes for you to process a thought, or handling multitasking.
It is believed exercise programs that combine aerobic exercise and strength training offer better cognitive results than either program alone.
Carla Sottovia, assistant fitness director and senior personal trainer at the Cooper Center in Dallas, says that after exercise people have an increase in epinephrine, a mood hormone.
Physical exercise and your brain
When you exercise, muscles begin to use oxygen at a higher rate. To satisfy those muscles, the heart pumps more oxygenated blood, and of course some it flows to the brain. Estimates are that the brain uses about 25 percent of the oxygen that you breathe in.
"Exercise may affect cognition and memory because it is associated with increased production of a substance called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) and neurogenesis," says Dr. Susan Evans, professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College.
Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons, or nerve cells, are created in the brain. These, in turn, process and transmit information.
"Exercise,'' continued Evans, "is, in fact, the only (nondrug) factor associated with neurogenesis."
Carl Cotman, director of the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California at Irving, refers to BDNF as being like the brain's "plant fertilizer: When applied to neurons, BDNF encourages their growth and protects them from injury."
Some mental exercises
• Remembering names. The stronger the web of associations you have mentally established, the more likely you will be able to retrieve information. For instance, in addition to a person's name, try to observe another cue: hair color, voice, mannerisms. And use the name several times while conversing with the person.
• Learn something new. "Add variety to your daily routine. Stretch yourself mentally and you will avoid brain shrinkage,'' Drs. Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz advise in their book You, the Owners Manual.
• Get enough sleep. Recent research is finding a correlation between sleep patterns and memory.
Harvard University psychiatry researcher Matt Walker says memories are created in three distinct stages, the second of which requires sleep. "If you learn something during the day and are tested on it that same day, there is no improvement in the memory,'' according to Dr. Walker. "But after a night of sleep, that memory is improved."
• Manage stress. Robert Sapolisky, a professor of biological science and neurology at Stanford University, says that when you have extreme stress for extended periods, the steroid hormone cortisol is released into the bloodstream. This substance, especially in high levels, can disrupt connections between nerve cells.
Laughter and meditation are great stress relievers; laughter reduces anxiety and tension while 15 minutes of meditation a day helps preserve brain cells by reducing cortisol in the brain.
• Mental gymnastics. Memory expert Carol Vorderman, author of Super Brain: 101 Easy Ways to a More Agile Mind, suggests this challenge: Study a picture, wait a minute, then try to remember as much as you can. If you remember 11 or more things in the picture, you have great recall.
Another exercise is from The Memory Bible by Dr. Gary Small: Study this list for about a minute, then wait 20 minutes and see how many items you recall.
Plank, banker, sauce
Umbrella, abdomen, reptile
Lobster, orchestra, forehead, jury
If you can remember at least eight of the 10 items, you have excellent recall; if you remember fewer than five, you may need to practice your memorizing skills.
If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning ANY exercise program. Sally Anderson, a trainer, is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.
Tom Muntz, 71, demonstrates this month's exercises at the Therapoy and Sports Center in St. Petersburg.
Chest Press (above) works chest muscles, shoulders and triceps (back of the upper arms).
Lying on a bench or mat on the floor, hold a weight in each hand; your feet are flat on floor or on bench, if it is more comfortable. Slowly lift weights up, palms facing forward until arms are directly over shoulders. Slowly lower weights, bringing arms down slightly to the side; elbows will be a little below shoulder level. Tip: Avoid arching your back. If working on the floor, keep knees bent.
Lat pulldown (right) strengthens back, shoulders and biceps (the front of the upper arms).
Before you begin, sit in the seat and adjust the thigh pads so that they rest on top of thighs. Stand up and hold bar with an overhand grip, hands wider than shoulders. Holding the bar, sit down. Keeping chest lifted, slightly lean back from hips throughout the movement. In a smooth motion, pull bar down to top of chest. Hold this position for a moment, then slowly raise bar back up. After desired repetitions, stand up to return bar to its original position. Tips: Do not rock back and forth or lean way back while pulling weight down.
Step Workout (not pictured) gives a cardiovascular workout as you step up and down on a platform of heights ranging from 6 to 12 inches.
While there are a variety of interesting step patterns, begin with a basic step: right foot leading up and down on the platform for a minute, transitioning to the left foot for a minute. For proper posture and stepping technique, consult a step instructor or personal trainer.
Pullover, a back exercise that works muscles in the chest, shoulders and abdomen.
Lying on a bench or mat as you would for the Chest Press, hold a weight with both hands, palms facing upward. Extend arms upward, directly over shoulders; weight will be vertical. Contracting abdominals and keeping elbows slightly bent, slowly lower weight until bottom of weight is behind your head. Keeping elbows slightly bent, return weight to original position. Tips: Do not arch back off bench as you lower the weight. And do not lower weight too far behind your head. If you have shoulder problems, perform the exercise on the floor, to limit your range of motion.