Memory exercises and stress reduction coupled with a healthy diet and regular physical exercise improves memory in older adults, a study shows.
This four-component lifestyle program “not only improved memory but also improved brain efficiency in just two short weeks,” said study chief Dr. Gary Small from the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Initially, we were skeptical that we could have an impact in such a brief period of time but we were pleasantly surprised because the volunteers who followed the lifestyle program not only noticed better memory ability but when we tested them with objective tests we found that there was significant improvement in memory,” he said.
In the 14-day study, 34 adults with normal memory were randomly assigned to no behavior modification or to a memory improvement plan that entailed the following:
Eating five small healthy meals per day rich in omega-3 fats from fish and olive oil, healthy whole grain carbohydrates and antioxidants. Eating five small meals instead of three larger meals prevents dips in blood sugar, the primary energy source for the brain.
Taking daily brisk walks and physical conditioning to help brain circulation, which has been found to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Performing stretching and relaxation exercises, which curb the body’s production of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol can impair memory by shrinking the brain’s memory centers.
Memory training - brainteasers, crossword puzzles and basic memory exercises improve everyday memory skills. “The memory techniques that we taught people were probably the most important component,” Small said.
Right before and right after the study, each subject underwent positron emission tomography or “PET” scans to measure activity throughout the brain.
After the 14-day study, PET scans showed that adults who followed the memory improvement plan recorded a marked decrease in brain metabolism in an area of the brain directly linked to working memory and other cognitive functions, suggesting that they were using their brains more efficiently.
“It was interesting that people had better memory and they used up less brain power,” Small said. “It’s similar to a physical fitness model - you go the gym, you work out, lift some weights and you are sore, but after a few weeks of training you can lift heavier weights and you use less energy to do it,” he explained.
Subjects in the study ranged from 35 to 70 years of age - on average they were 53 years old. “We know from past studies that subtle evidence of brain aging can be seen on PET scans even in people in their 30s,” Small noted, “so it’s something that starts relatively early in life.” He believes it’s “probably never too late or too early to get started on a healthy lifestyle to improve your brain health.”
Dr. Small details the memory improvement plan used in this study in his book called The Memory Prescription. He presented results of the current study this week during the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology’s annual meeting in Hawaii.
Revision date: June 11, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD