When Kimberly McClain noticed herself struggling to remember simple details, even what her family had for dinner the night before, she got worried.
She worried because of a family history of dementia and a fellow church member’s recent diagnosis, at 54, of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Mostly, she worried because she was only 43.
“Just my short-term memory — I was really noticing a shift in it, and it was very annoying,” says McClain, now 45, a marriage and family therapist from Los Angeles.
She sought a doctor’s advice and became part of a two-week study on improving brain health. The results of that study and other research suggest that lifestyle choices can be as important as genetics in determining how our brains age, says Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging, who led the study.
“Our brains age just the way our bodies age, but there’s a lot that we can do to fight against it and keep ourselves mentally fit,” says Small, author of “The Memory Bible” (Hyperion, 2002) and “The Memory Prescription” (Hyperion, 2004).
Prevention through lifestyle changes
Simple lifestyle changes can help combat, and sometimes reverse, the memory loss that comes with getting older, Small says. And while there are no guarantees, these changes may prevent or delay Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
- Improve your diet. Research suggests a heart-healthy diet is also good for the brain, says Elizabeth Edgerly, chief program officer for the Alzheimer’s Association of Northern California and spokesperson for the group’s “Maintain Your Brain” campaign.
Avoid high fat, high cholesterol foods, and choose those rich in omega-3 fatty acids (fish, beans, walnuts), antioxidants (dark-skinned fruits and vegetables) and vitamins. Check with your doctor before adding vitamin supplements. Tobacco and excess alcohol are no-no’s.
Small suggests eating five small meals a day to maintain a consistent blood-sugar level and keep the brain full of nutrients.
It’s OK to indulge occasionally, he adds. “Don’t deprive yourself too much. Have a little bit of that favorite food, but in small portions.”
- Exercise. Physical fitness protects against high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, stroke and diabetes — all risk factors for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
“Your body’s health can very much predict the health of your brain,” says Carey Gleason, a dementia researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It’s important to view the body and the brain as a system working together.”
At 93, Arthur Zitzner of West Orange, N.J., walks and goes to the gym in the winter and swims in the summer. “I have lots of interests,” says the former sales manager.
With lively eyes and an infectious grin, Zitzner was one of several residents at Green Hill retirement center who attributed the mental fitness they enjoy today to exercise routines established decades ago.
Edgerly agrees. “You need to make the changes in your 40s and 50s if you want to reduce your risk 30 years from now.”
- Stay connected. Social interaction contributes to brain vitality, Edgerly says.
Georgia Macdonough, 80, believes it. As a Red Cross volunteer, the retired nurse practitioner spends weeks at natural disaster sites, most recently in the Gulf Coast region after Hurricane Katrina. When she’s home in Phoenix, she juggles cooking classes and church activities, and enjoys planning trips to Paris, also for cooking classes.
“I am convinced that being active has really kept my mind and body in tone,” says Macdonough, a widow, adding that she made healthy eating and exercise a greater priority after she was diagnosed with diabetes several years ago. Today, she walks and swims regularly and gives her homemade desserts to friends and family.
- Exercise your mind. Any activity that requires focus and concentration fits the bill. “There isn’t a study that can say doing Sudoku is better than doing crosswords or playing chess,” Edgerly says. “Find something that you like to do and that you can realistically do every day or every other day.”
Small suggests challenging yourself with something new. “If you’re a writer, try knitting.”
The experts warn against watching too much television. Even news programs or quiz shows like “Jeopardy” are “not as stimulating or engaging as a conversation or doing something,” Edgerly says.
The same can be said for reading, adds Edgerly, who suggests looking for material “outside your normal sphere.”
- Reduce stress. Anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation can contribute to memory loss, but usually the loss is reversible if the cause is identified and treated, Gleason says.
Physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce stress, but short visualization exercises or deep breathing in the middle of a busy day can also help, Small says. “Multitaskers” would benefit simply by eliminating a task or two.
McClain, a mother of two, learned through Small’s study that stress was a major factor behind her forgetfulness.
“People in their 40s and 50s have a lot on their shoulders,” she says. “It’s really easy to get into the swing of getting zero time for yourself.”
She now begins each day with stretching and breathing exercises, making an effort not to “get up and immediately jump into my kids’ world.”
She takes daily walks, does yoga twice a week, keeps healthy snacks in her car and office, and makes Sudoku, the popular numbers puzzle, her daily brainteaser. She credits the routine with restoring her memory.
“It’s not that I altered my activities, but I added some self-care,” McClain says.