Exercise, Eating to Enhance Memory?

What kind of nutrition or exercises help mitigate memory loss in aging adults? Is it true that the shrinking hippocampus is to blame?

– September 26, 2002

(Updated 1/24/2005)

Nutrition and exercise can help stop or slow age-related memory loss and even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. We know that the incidence of Alzheimer’s is higher than normal among people whose diets are high in saturated fat, which causes free radical damage leading to inflammation of the brain. On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, sardines and flax seeds appear to be protective. Blueberries are another food that seems to help. The active component is the anthocyanin pigments they contain. These are the protective compounds that make the berries blue and are responsible for their antioxidant potency – one half cup of blueberries packs as much antioxidant power as five servings of peas, carrots, apples, squash, or broccoli. Dharma Singh Khalsa, MD, President/Medical Director of Alzheimer’s Prevention Foundation here in Tucson, recommends eating one-half cup of fresh or frozen blueberries daily. Vitamins C and E are also protective.

Research in rates suggests that the yellow spice turmeric, a major ingredient in American mustard and Indian curry can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This may help explain the unusually low incidence of Alzheimer’s in India, where people consume significant amounts of turmeric every day.

You can also slow memory loss with regular aerobic exercise, but keeping your mind active is important, too. Dr. Khalsa also explains that cognitive exercise such as doing puzzles or discussing current events can increase crucial connections between brain cells. He recommends combining physical and mental exercise by singing familiar songs while walking or reading the newspaper while riding a stationary exercise bike.

You’re correct that the hippocampus, the area of the brain where information is stored temporarily before transfer to the cerebral cortex, is involved in age-related memory problems. Dr. Khalsa explains that in addition to age, chronic stress can harm the hippocampus via the release of high levels of the hormone cortisol from the adrenal gland. Cortisol is directly toxic to neurons, it actually destroys hippocampal cells resulting in loss of the ability to voluntarily recall previously learned information. You can lower cortisol levels with meditation and other relaxation techniques.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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