How many times have you seen this happen: After a lifetime of hard work, an older friend or relative retires, with plans to travel and spend time with family. And then it suddenly hits — a diagnosis of early dementia. It’s one of life’s sad facts that our most vital organ often suffers as we age, falling prey to normal memory loss at best, or Alzheimer’s at worst. As researchers continue seeking a cure for these dreaded conditions, recent research has shown that simple lifestyle changes may have a positive impact on our brain health in our golden years.
• Exercise improves memory, brain function in MCI patients:
I can’t stress enough the importance of exercise, which benefits people of all ages and health conditions. A study reported in the August issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease reports that moderate exercise can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s in older people who have mild cognitive impairment. Researchers at the University of Maryland studied 17 individuals ages 60 to 88. The test subjects walked on a treadmill four days a week for 12 weeks, and a battery of neuropsychological tests before and after the exercise program found that the subjects’ memory and neural efficiency both showed “significant improvement.”
In some ways, this study just reaffirms previous findings linking exercise and a healthy brain. Studies have shown exercise helps increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory. As the lead researcher notes, exercise increases blood flow and volume in the brain, bringing more nutrients. The blood flow also may help counteract the amyloid plaque buildup that occurs with AD.
• Meditation may slow Alzheimer’s progression: In a study reported in November by Medscape Medical News, researchers discovered that adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) who received mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy (aka MBSR therapy, or meditation) experienced greater connectivity in brain regions typically affected by MCI and Alzheimer’s. Carried out over a period of eight weeks, the study showed these meditating patients experienced less atrophy in the hippocampus. While more research is needed, the lead researchers noted that implementing such practices as meditation and yoga for MCI patients has little downside, but could pay big benefits.
• Music is very good for the brain: At the recent Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting for the Society of Neuroscience, researchers presented results of a study on the relationship between music and brain function. Chinese researchers revealed that musical training at a young age — before age 7 — might boost the regions of the brain influencing hearing and language skills. The volume of the brain regions related to hearing and self-awareness were actually larger in those individuals who took early music lessons. Another study, published in the Nov. 6 Journal of Neuroscience, reported that older adults who played a musical instrument in childhood processed language faster than other adults who never played an instrument, even decades after they quit playing.
Obviously, if you’re an older adult who never played an instrument as a child, this news doesn’t help you, but other studies have suggested a link between music and brain function. One 2013 study found that elderly adults with moderate to severe dementia showed marked improvement after singing classic songs from their earlier years. In the four-month study, elderly patients were led in singing popular songs from The Sound of Music, The Wizard of Oz and other classics. Following the sessions, the subjects showed improvement in both cognitive testing and their attitude toward life.
Finally, these are just a few of the recent studies linking behavior to brain health. Of course, you’ve undoubtedly at some point heard me mention other tips for a healthy brain, from adding dietary items such as green tea and fish oil to lifestyle changes such as getting adequate sleep. Take care of your brain and you’ll be able to reap the rewards in a longer, more satisfying life.