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UCLA

You Must Remember This

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jul 1, 2006 12:00 AM


Lifestyle factors — mental activity, diet, exercise, and stress levels — are often more important than genes in determining how well our brains age.

One of Small's basic memory tools is something he calls Look, Snap, Connect. "Look" reminds us to actively observe what we want to learn; "snap" involves creating a mental snapshot of the material; and "connect" is the process of linking the mental snapshot with the new information.

The technique can be used for such tasks as remembering errands and connecting names to faces. Need to go to the post office and then to the market to pick up dairy products? Picture your postal carrier juggling eggs. If you're introduced to a Mr. Carpenter, imagine him wearing a tool belt. Visualize the face of the "Bill" you just met on U.S. currency. "We've found that in a short period of time, we can significantly improve memory performance with this kind of technique," says Small.

How we care for our bodies also has implications on how we think, in areas such as diet, for example. Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables work against the stress caused by free radicals, which wear down our DNA and accelerate the aging process. Omega-3 fats from foods such as fish, olive oil and nuts fight not only oxidation, but also inflammation, which may also be involved in brain decline. Carbohydrates come in good and bad forms — those from processed foods tend to spike blood sugar levels, which can damage brain health over time; eating small meals throughout the day and low-glycemic-index carbohydrates helps to keep blood sugar on an even keel. Calorie control is also important: Overconsumption resulting in excess body weight can lead to hypertension and diabetes, increasing the risk of cognitive impairment from stroke and the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Physical conditioning also has mental benefits. Small points to studies indicating that just walking 10 minutes a day lowers the risk for Alzheimer's. Regular cardiovascular exercise inacreases the level of endorphins — natural antidepressants — and can improve focus. Activity also reduces stress, and chronically high levels of stress can wreak havoc on the brain as well as the body.

In The Longevity Bible, Small expands on these four essential strategies for brain health, adding four more: cultivating healthy relationships, maintaining a positive outlook, using the best medicines and treatments to look and feel younger, and mastering our environment by reducing emotional and physical clutter.

"If you have healthy intimate relationships and a positive outlook, you're less prone to depression, which can affect your memory," Small says. "And if you take care of your brain health, you're going to be more likely to stay physically fit, reduce stress and eat a healthy diet."

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