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Giving Your Memory a Health Boost 

Kimberly McClain didn't give it much thought when she started having trouble finding her keys or frequently couldn't remember why she had walked into a particular room. That changed two years ago when her minister's middle-age husband was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.

"It was a wake up call," says McClain, a 45-year-old mother of two who lives in Los Angeles. "I realized I wasn't having the kind of recall I thought I should have." What bothered her most was having to check her calendar each morning to remind herself what was on her schedule that day. "It was happening frequently to me," she says of the memory lapses. "I was concerned." McClain also wondered whether her memory would worsen in the future since her late grandmother had dementia. "I thought, 'What can I do to preserve my memory right now?'"

As she soon found out, there are lots of things people can do to not only preserve their memory, but also to improve it. Research suggests that simple steps, which include the basic tenets of a healthy lifestyle — exercising, eating right, getting enough sleep and reducing stress — can stave off cognitive decline and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's in the future.

"We all know that as we age, our brains age, too," says Dr. Gary W. Small, a professor on aging at UCLA's Center on Aging. "Brain cells tend to communicate less effectively as time goes on." Short-term memory is often the first to go. "You may remember details of your high school graduation, but you don't remember what you had for lunch the day before."

Many factors contribute to age-related memory decline, and McClain is right — family history is one of them. But lifestyle choices including one's environment, diet, stress, and physical and mental conditioning make up an even larger part of the equation. Fortunately, it's never too late to start making some changes.

The brain "is a very plastic system," says Dr. Antonio Convit, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, meaning it can repair itself from the wear and tear of everyday damage. "Just because we have some memory impairments today doesn't mean we can't do something about improving them by changing lifestyle habits like exercising and losing weight." Exercise Your Body and Your Brain Exercising your body helps maintain a healthy weight and reduces your risk for diabetes. That's important, says Convit, because of the brain's reliance on glucose for energy. "If the regulation of glucose is sub optimal, like in diabetes, the brain may not get optimal fuel when it needs it." Exercise improves the body's control of glucose, which ultimately helps to preserve memory.

Bill Weeden started an exercise program recently when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. Although he has always enjoyed staying mentally fit by doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku and diagramless puzzles, the 65-year-old actor and musician from Manhattan recently realized he was having trouble finding his wallet and remembering which word to use when he writes lyrics. He wants to put a stop to that now. "I don't want to sink into some kind of old-age syndrome that includes memory loss."

Using mental aerobics such as jigsaw puzzles and other visual stimulation is important, too. "Similar to exercising muscles, keeping the brain active is essential," says Convit, who also is a research psychiatrist with the Nathan Kline Institute in Manhattan. "One of the largest risk factors for Alzheimer's is having low education." People who continue learning and stay engaged in intellectual activities like reading books, going to the theater or being active in their community "are increasing their brain reserve and are less likely to develop cognitive impairment that will affect the quality of their life."

Another way to keep the brain active is to work on your weaknesses, says Donalee Markus, a learning specialist based in Chicago. "As adults, we tend to do things we like to do, and we avoid things that we don't want to do. We select areas that are going to feed our strengths, not our weaknesses. We're not using all of our brains."

To change that pattern, she says, start practicing math if you avoid doing it just because you're not good at it. Brush your teeth or dial the phone with the hand you don't normally use. "When you do things you aren't familiar with, you exercise alternate neural pathways and you develop [the brain's] plasticity," she explains.

Small, author of The Memory Prescription (Hyperion, $25.95) and other books on boosting memory, says he recommends cross-training for the brain. Try right-brain exercises like visual mazes and left-brain exercises like crossword puzzles. Practice memory techniques. In his book, Small outlines a component of his program he calls "Look. Snap. Connect." "Look means focus your attention," he explains. "Snap means create a mental snapshot. Then connect those mental snapshots in your mind's eye. You can use that for remembering names, faces, lists, almost anything." Feed Your Brain Foods that improve cardiovascular health are also considered good for the brain. That means avoiding processed or junk foods, drinking six to eight glasses of water per day, avoiding skipping meals, and eating several small meals throughout the day. All of those habits will reduce spikes in blood sugar,

It's just as important to avoid bad fat, such as the fat contained in animal products, and opting instead for foods like olive oil, nuts and fish, which are rich in good fats, including omega-3 fatty acids. Likewise, eat a diet rich in antioxidants, such as leafy, bright green or orange vegetables, berries — especially strawberries and blueberries — raisins and green tea.

"Antioxidants protect tissues from the damage of oxidative stress," says Convit. Reduce Your Stress Many people find their memory problems are directly related to their stress levels. "We're under a great deal of stress in our daily lives," says Convit. Elevations in the stress hormone cortisol can have a direct impact on memory and the glucose control system. "If an individual is under a great deal of stress, the cortisol levels are elevated, and an individual's insulin won't function as effectively."

Too much stress was one of McClain's problems. As a mother of two girls who was involved in fundraising and going to school for a master's degree in clinical psychology, McClain says she wasn't eating right, wasn't getting enough sleep and simply had too much to do.

"I definitely had an overload. It didn't occur to me that I was way too busy." Once she starting eating healthier, exercising and cutting back on her volunteer work, she says she felt much better. "I felt more empowered. My mood changed. And that was just after a couple of days."

Distributed by Featurewell.com

Sidebar: A Workout for Your Brain Looking for some innovative ways to keep your brain stimulated and active? Learning specialist Donalee Markus says these activities are a great place to start: Fold laundry while listening to a book on tape. Combining mental and physical skills gives your brain a workout.

Square dance or play the video game, Dance Dance Revolution. Listening to and following directions while moving challenges the brain to think harder.

Improve your balance by sitting on a balance ball barefoot while watching TV. Strengthening your ability to balance gives you one less thing to focus on when you're trying to pay attention to something.

Use colored markers. Color helps you remember and organize information.

Stay on top of changes in hearing or vision. If you don't hear it, or can't see it, you won't remember it.

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