Here's an anti-aging strategy: Go shopping.

Two brain experts contend that getting out to the mall helps women outlive men

Health & Fitness

March 02, 2003|By Mike Morris | Mike Morris,Sun Staff

Drs. Guy McKhann and Marilyn Albert, two of the world's leading experts on brain research, have a theory why women tend to live longer than men: They shop more.

Whether it's for clothes or groceries, shopping is a simple way to summarize what's good for the brain, say this cerebral husband and wife. It combines three elements that allow the brain to function better:

* staying physically active

* challenging the brain

* keeping a positive self-image.

"Women go to the mall, and they have to walk around a lot, oftentimes carrying heavy bags. Secondly, they have to make a lot of decisions: 'I have to compare this price with that,' 'Will this particular piece fit in my home?' 'I already have a sweater, do I need another sweater?' So they have to make all of these decisions. And when they're all done, they really feel good about themselves, like they've accomplished something," says McKhann, 70, professor of neurology and director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind / Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

"Men, on the other hand, are at home sitting in front of the television trying to help the Ravens along, and that doesn't do any of the three."

McKhann and Albert were interested in what makes the elderly tick -- why some live longer, more productive lives than others. So in 1985 they began a 10-year study of 3,000 senior citizens. Their findings largely make up Keep Your Brain Young (Wiley, $24.95), a reference book of sorts for how to keep the brain functioning in tip-top form.

"I think the average person has a great interest in keeping their mind younger," said Albert, 59, who recently left Harvard Medical School to serve as a director of cognitive neuroscience at Hopkins.

Possessing a positive attitude and self-motivation, they found, could be what separates the average from those who excel.

"The most important thing is that individuals see a positive image of themselves. That they see themselves as having a role to play, whether it's in their family or in the community," McKhann said.

McKhann and Albert are living proof that their advice works. While most people their ages are retiring, they continue to balance busy careers with their personal lives. He's the founding chairman of Hopkins' Department of Neurology and has been a guest on 60 Minutes, while she's the former director of the Gerontology Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital and has appeared on the Today show.

The couple married in 1997 after working together off and on since the mid '80s. They now live in Ruxton and regularly walk, ride bikes and go to the gym together. Albert says she tries to incorporate exercise into her daily life after being convinced of the benefits not only to the heart, but also the brain.

"Do whatever turns you on," McKhann says about exercising. "Some people walk. Some people make it a point to go to exercise classes. The most important thing is to build it into your life in a regular way. And one of the things we recommend to younger people, that they get into a pattern they can continue. It's very hard if you've been sedentary, say at the age of 75, to suddenly change the way you're going to lead your life, but if you've been doing that all along it's much more easy to continue."

It's important not only to flex your biceps, but your brain, McKhann and Albert say. They recommend activities that will challenge the mind -- everything from crossword puzzles and reading to playing bridge and attending lectures.

Keep Your Brain Young, which comes out in paperback in May, also focuses on a hot topic in the field of brain research: diet.

"This is an area we get asked about a lot. Is there a special diet you can eat that's going to make your brain function a lot better than it is right now? The answer is no. I mean if we knew that, everybody would be on that diet. There is no such diet," McKhann said.

There are, however, some things McKhann and Albert feel can prevent problems, with vitamin E leading the list. McKhann said there's "pretty good" data that vitamin E, an antioxidant, may delay some of the normal changes in function brought about by age as well as the onset of serious problems such as Alzheimer's disease.

Informing the public on these matters was the couple's primary goal in writing Keep Your Brain Young. While traveling the country as part of a panel of brain experts for the American Association of Retired Person's "Staying Sharp" seminars, they found a public hungry for brain-related information. This helped inspire the pair to write their book.

"We never envisioned that this is a book someone would read from cover to cover, but rather a book of reference," Albert said.

After years of writing hundreds of complex scholarly papers, the doctors found it challenging to create a book that was respected by their peers for its accuracy and thoroughness, yet simple enough for the average reader to comprehend.

They've succeeded, says Dr. Jack Griffin, chair of Hopkins' Depart-ment of Neurology, who calls the book "easily readable."

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