A Beautiful Mind

Research shows regular mental exercise and being physically and socially active are key to keeping your memory sharp

September 20, 2007|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporter

Carolyn Forwood, a retired salesclerk and beautician, believes in regular exercise for body and brain.

The 68-year-old Parkville resident does crossword puzzles every day. She took up yoga a few months ago, and she works out on the treadmills and stationary bikes in the new fitness room at the Parkville Senior Center three to four times a week.

She also volunteers part time as a senior center receptionist and spends as much time as possible with her three daughters and two stepdaughters.

"I get up every day, and I try to keep everything working," she said.

New research shows that when people like Forwood stay physically active and socially connected as they age, they can help keep their memory sharp, as well.

While forgetfulness once appeared to be an invisible but inevitable price of growing old, experts now say they believe that it doesn't have to be that way.

"I think we're finding more reasons to be optimistic about aging and our mental fitness," said George Rebok, a psychologist and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Rebok was part of a national research team that improved the memories of up to 700 volunteers ages 65 and older with 10 approximately hour-long training sessions during a five- to six-week period.

In some cases, just being an active reader can help. This summer, another Baltimore researcher reported that workers at a Canadian lead smelter with higher reading levels had better memory and decision-making skills than those who didn't read as well.

"Being a reader, you're always trying to explore new areas," said Dr. Margit L. Bleecker, a neurologist who published the findings in the journal Neurology.

With the elderly population expected to skyrocket from today's 36 million to 55 million by 2020, memory loss is becoming a critical public health issue, experts say. More people, they say, are asking what they can do to keep their mental abilities intact and whether there are clear warning signs to developing serious memory problems.

An estimated 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia and memory loss in people over 65, according to federal estimates.

As the population ages, the number of Alzheimer's cases in the U.S. is expected to reach 14 million by 2050 if treatments and cures are not found.

Memory exercises won't prevent Alzheimer's or dementia, but they may stave off the symptoms, said Dr. Barry Gordon, a Johns Hopkins neurologist who is writing his third book on memory.

"If you're Arnold Schwarzenegger and you develop a muscle disease, you're going to remain stronger longer than someone else with the disease. But you're still going to have the disease," he said. "It's the same idea with memory."

People might experience some memory decline as early as their 20s and 30s, Gordon said. But many people only begin to notice in their mid-40s to mid-60s, when they begin to misplace car keys or have trouble remembering a name, Gordon said.

Problems become more pronounced when people reach their 70s and 80s. Excessive alcohol use, depression and anxiety can make memory problems worse at any age, he says.

Still, occasional memory lapses are usually nothing to worry about, Gordon said.

"Everybody is entitled to leave the kids at soccer at least once a season. But if it happens repeatedly, that's a cause for concern," he said.

Don't test memory

One tip Gordon gives is to avoid testing your memory if you don't have to. If you have something important to remember, make a note, he says.

Gert Gossett, the 70-year-old kitchen supervisor at the Parkville Senior Center, agrees with that advice. "I do tend to write things down more," she said.

Like most people, Gossett can remember songs from childhood, and she encourages seniors at the Parkville center to sing along after lunch. But like the rest of us, she occasionally has trouble placing names with faces.

Her ability to remember things has faded over the years, she said, but "it hasn't gotten to a point where people say to me, `How could you forget that?'"

How can people tell if memory problems do become serious? Usually, a spouse or close friend will pick up on it first, Hopkins' Gordon says.

"The question is, are you forgetting something important -- and how often are you forgetting something important?" he said.

Recent studies have linked reduced risks of dementia to leisure activities such as reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments and dancing.

A panel appointed by the National Institutes of Health issued recommendations last year for enhancing memory and cognitive health among the elderly. They included regular physical exercise, keeping up with social contacts, maintaining cardiovascular health to ensure a healthy blood flow and regularly teasing the brain.

"In general, what's good for your heart is also good for your brain," said Dr. Joseph Quinn, a neurologist and memory specialist at Oregon Health & Science University.

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