[Paleopsych] UPI: Scientists find clues to memory health.

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Wed Jul 13 22:17:16 UTC 2005

Scientists find clues to memory health

SAN FRANCISCO, July 12 (UPI) -- Misplaced keys, faltering name recall, 
incomplete thoughts -- by age 50, many otherwise healthy adults begin to notice 
these insidious symptoms, all signs of short-term memory loss. Indeed, as we 
age, our memory function can decline by as much as 45 percent, researchers have 

Much remains to be learned about the processes that underlie memory loss, but 
science is beginning to discover ways to abate -- and possibly to halt -- 
cognitive decline.

According to Michael Merzenich, chief scientific officer with Posit Science in 
San Francisco, the key to memory longevity is lifelong learning. "Often, as 
people age, they engage in less and less learning," Merzenich told United Press 
International. "They rest on their laurels, and their environments, even if 
stimulating (such as a job or hobbies), do not drive new learning."

Merzenich's company is pioneering brain-training exercises for aging adults 
that, like calisthenics, keep the organ flexible, in good physical shape and 
functioning well into the golden years. The company's computer-guided exercises 
-- which are being marketing to assisted-living and retirement communities -- 
aim at augmenting memory and improving visual acuity and hearing. The memory 
exercises should be practiced five days a week for an hour a day for eight 
weeks -- a demanding regimen, but one that researchers think may mitigate 
memory loss.

"As the brain gets into ruts, it is not challenged with new learning, and 
without crucial stimulation, the brain's function can gradually erode over 
time, leading to decreased memory and cognitive function," Merzenich explained. 
Undertaking a rigorous "brain fitness" program later in life may be only part 
of the answer, said Dr. Thomas Crook, former chief of the National Institute of 
Mental Health's Geriatric Psychopharmacology Program. Diet plays an absolutely 
key role in determining brain function later in life, he said, and establishing 
healthy eating habits early on can deliver dividends in old age. "Diet is very 
important. A generalization would be that those things that are good for the 
heart are good for the brain as well," Crook told UPI. "We eat such massive 
amounts of food in this country that we end up with obesity and diabetes, which 
are in themselves problematic for memory."

Likewise, exercise appears to contribute to better brain health, he said. "A 
lot of research is showing that aerobic exercise is particularly helpful," 
Crook said. "Even 30 minutes of walking per day can help. We know that vascular 
changes in the heart also apply to the brain, and exercise benefits both."

The cartoon character Popeye may have been on to something, with his 
enthusiastic endorsement of spinach. According to a 2005 study by Harvard 
University researchers, fruit and vegetable intake is inversely related to 
cognitive decline -- the more fresh foods you eat, the better your chances of 
maintaining brain health.

The Harvard group followed a cohort of female subjects from 1976 to 2001 and 
tracked their eating habits along with mental function over four decades. They 
found that the women who ate the highest amounts of green leafy vegetables 
(such as broccoli, greens and spinach) had the slowest mental decline.

"The finding with cruciferous vegetables, we believe, may be because they are 
nutrient dense -- good source of vitamin C, beta carotene, B vitamins, which 
have all been found in some studies to be associated with better cognition," 
said Jae Hee Kang, lead author of the Harvard study.

Crook also noted that a new compound of neuropeptides marketed as a dietary 
supplement appears to enhance nerve-cell synaptic and dendritic growth -- a 
process associated with improved memory.

"We think the supplement is a useful addition to a heart healthy diet that 
includes low-fat food and modest portion sizes," he said. Crook conducted 
clinical trials on the compound, which has not yet hit the market. Despite his 
enthusiasm for the new supplement's potential benefits, however, he said most 
"nutriceuticals," including the much-touted gingko biloba, do not work.

"There's no sound evidence that Ginkgo, nor any of the witch's brews sold under 
clever names, improves learning and memory," Crook said. "I'm really quite 
negative about nutriceuticals in general."

Before adults over age 50 start popping supplements and loading up on spinach, 
they should consult their physicians, who can assess if their perceived 
forgetfulness is, in fact, attributable to age-related memory loss. Sometimes, 
absent-mindedness may not be serious and can be confused with something as 
simple as fatigue, University of California, San Diego, researchers have found.

They wrote in the July 2005 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatric 
Society that senior adults have more difficulty getting a good night's sleep 
because the body's circadian rhythms change with age. Seniors also may 
experience insomnia as a side effect of one of the many medications prescribed 
to older adults.

The bottom line is that a good memory -- like a fabulously fit body -- requires 
good habits, diligence and discipline, Crook said. "It doesn't happen 
magically," he said. "It's like being in shape; you have to do a lot of work 
and exercise to get better at it."

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