Brain boosters

It seems to be a catch-all phrase: “Forget about it.”

Well, no problem there. Where are the car keys? Or for that matter, the parked car? That wonderful book you read last week, what was it called again? You know you walked into the kitchen for a reason, but what was it? All forgotten, at least momentarily.

Like the need for reading glasses, sudden blanking or forgetfulness often strikes otherwise high-functioning people in their forties and fifties (and yes, sometimes as early as their mid-thirties; it is thought memory loss actually begins in the 20s).

Memory lapses, such as suddenly blocking a neighbour’s or colleague’s name or forgetting a social engagement, are not only embarrassing, but can cause considerable anxiety. Once you start having trouble concentrating or remembering things, is this a portent of even worse things to come, i.e…. Alzheimer’s disease?

Not necessarily, according to experts. Increasingly, scientists are finding that for the most part, memory problems encountered in midlife may not be predictive of the progressive degeneration that leads to dementia. Instead, the loss of mental acuity may simply reflect the symptoms of an aging brain.

The brain, as it ages, may gradually lose the material it needs for one region to communicate effectively with another region, according to a study at Harvard University. The study, published in Neuron, suggests this slowly undermines sophisticated “higher” cognitive functions such as memory and learning.

Normal, but not acceptable
Just because a certain amount of age-related forgetfulness may be ‘normal’, is it acceptable, or perhaps more importantly, inevitable?

Not by a long shot according to Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, author of Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife (HarperCollins).

“Two hundred years ago, if we aged ‘normally’ — that is, according to our biological destiny — forgetfulness wouldn’t be an issue at forty-five or fifty: Most of us would be in our graves,” she writes. “Medicine constantly redefines what is normal in terms of physiological aging.

“We get new knees and new hips. We take drugs to control our blood pressure. We don’t give up reading when our fading vision demands we hold a newspaper at arm’s length. Instead we build ourselves an arsenal of reading glasses and scatter them all over the house and office, in case we forget where they are.”

Fighting forgetfulness
So what sort of arsenal can we build up to fight forgetfulness?

It’s a question that Ramin, a 40-something veteran journalist who was herself experiencing memory problems, sought to answer. Over the course of a three year quest for a more agile brain, she underwent 10 “interventions” meant to enhance her cognitive function. These interventions, detailed in her book, involved consultations with top experts in the fields of sleep, stress, traumatic brain injury, hormones, genetics and dementia, as well as specialists in nutrition, cognitive psychology and the growing field of drug-based cognitive enhancement.

Among other treatments, her quest found her adopting a brain-friendly diet including intensive vitamin supplements, taking up mental and physical aerobics in the form of salsa dancing, and after receiving a prescription, trying several drugs including Adderall and Provigil, both used to treat Attention Deficient Disorder (ADD).

As a result of her research, Ramin reports that she was functioning at a much higher cognitive level. “I know the fog has lifted,” Ramin says. “In time, I got my mojo back –– ideas meshed, names made themselves readily available and words flew from my brain to my fingers to the monitor screen. Slowly, I worked my way back to a mind I could trust.”

Genetics only a small part
Genetics only play a small part in determining who will develop Alzheimer’s and there are things you can do to improve your chances of spending the final third of your life in excellent cognitive condition, Ramin says.

Not surprisingly, sleep, diet, exercise and stress management seem to play a key role in maintaining brain health. It’s advice we’ve all heard before, but it can affect not only your physical well-being, but your cognitive health as well:

– Get 8 hours of sleep.
– Manage both short-term and long-term stress.
– Drink alcohol only in moderation.
– Engage in daily mental and physical exercise. (Consider activities that engage both simultaneously such as ballroom dancing.)
– Don’t smoke.
– Eat a diet rich in antioxidants, essential fatty acids, B vitamins and magnesium. (Ramin also suggest spices like curcumin — the yellow pigment found in turmeric — and cinnamon.)
– Be cautious of neurotoxins such as methylmercury found in some seafood.

Other ways to keep your brain healthy
Keeping blood cholesterol under control is good for your heart, but it could also be important for cognitive health as it might have an effect on rising levels of brain cholesterol, which could in turn lead to the production of a toxic protein that attacks the brain.

And while hormone therapy can be detrimental for women too many years past menopause or at risk for certain diseases, it has begun to get attention for its possible role in protecting the brain. In her book, Ramin quotes Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolosky: “It’s overwhelmingly clear in the literature,” he says, “that estrogen is critical in terms of keeping neurons from becoming dysfunctional and dying.”

Ramin also spent the better part of five years researching vitamins and supplements that enhance mental acuity. “In order to keep your marbles, you need plenty of antioxidants, essential fatty acids, B vitamins and magnesium in your diet,” she says. “Unless you’re a grazing animal, it’s highly unlikely that you can obtain all the antioxidants you need exclusively from the food you eat.”

When looking for a good multi-purpose vitamin, be sure it is rich in Vitamin B, Ramin says. “Put your vitamin through the folate test—if the label lists 400 micrograms of folate, it’s likely to be a good one,” she adds.

On the Web
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Photo © Kirill Zdorov

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