Healthy Examined: Diet, activity sharpen mind - Arizona Republic

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by Ashley Macha - Sept. 16, 2011 11:07 AM
The Arizona Republic

We've all misplaced our keys, glasses or wallet. We've forgotten names of people we've met and failed to remember the time we were supposed to pick up the kids from school. But when it comes to forgetting where you are or why you went there in the first place, it could mean more than simple confusion.

On different levels, both scenarios derive from deteriorating brain function as we age. Memory loss and confusion are red flags for something more than just old age. Some memory lapses are a result of stress and sleep deprivation and aren't permanent. Other more serious memory problems affect personality and behavior and can point to permanent degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer's.

Alzheimer's and dementia are affecting an increasing number of people. There are an estimated 5.4 million people living with Alzheimer's in the United States, the Alzheimer's Association says, and a new case developing every 69 seconds.

Early detection is essential for treatment. Permanently reversing wear and tear to the brain is impossible, but there are ways to sharpen your mind.

Dr. Benjamin Seltzer, director of Cognitive and Behavioral Disorders at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, says the idea is to keep mentally active, but not to do something you don't enjoy.

Not every mental activity needs to be extremely challenging, Seltzer says. You just need to break out of your comfort zone.

"Activities that involve more than one step or that force you to figure out alternative ways of doing things" are good ways to keep the mind engaged.

Activities and games can be done alone - solitaire, crosswords or Sudoku, for example - or with family or friends - think Scrabble, Pictionary, Catch Phrase and Taboo.

Your brain is a highly complex organ in charge of intelligence, senses, body movement and behavior. Just like every other organ, the brain is affected by the foods and drinks you consume. Some studies claim that consumption of cinnamon, selenium-rich foods (such as sunflower seeds, brown rice and eggs) and foods high in flavonoids (such as blueberries, black beans and tomatoes) may boost memory and general cognitive function. Conversely, other studies found excessive use of alcohol and other drugs can cause memory lapses and blackouts, resulting in serious health issues.

"For diet," Seltzer says, "I'd just say eat a heart-healthy Mediterranean-type diet, low in saturated fats, high in omega fatty acids."

Exercise also may play an influential part in brain function. Although more research is needed, a review of 111 studies showed a positive relationship between exercise and people's memory, attention and decision-making abilities.

Sources: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Aging, Alzheimer's Association

17 Sep, 2011

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