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Jun 20, 2018

Alzheimer's and the Dementias: Is Forgetfulness a Natural Part of Aging?

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

The other day I was talking to a friend, who was frustrated because she had forgotten to do something important for work. Her first comment was, “I must be getting old because I can’t remember everything!” Even though she was joking, it made me think how so many of us assume that old age means memory loss—almost as if losing our ability to think and remember is natural! This assumption is only exacerbated by the growing rates of dementias and Alzheimer’s among seniors. But is memory loss and cognitive impairment really just a symptom of "old age"? 

The brain should in fact get better with age! The development of Alzheimer’s and the dementias is largely associated with our lifestyle choices—how we think, how we learn, what we eat, how we handle stress and how much exercise we do, for example. This is GREAT news! This means that by making good lifestyle choiceswe can reduce our risk of developing Alzheimer’s or dementias! We can take our mental and physical health back into our own hands! 

What are some ways you can improve your lifestyle choices?

  1. Eat real food in moderation. How we eat directly and indirectly affects our ability to think. In my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart,I discuss how foods affect our mind and brain, and how a real food lifestyle of whole, unprocessed, sustainable, local and seasonal foods in moderation can boost our ability to think, learn and succeed in life. See our non-profit Whole Mind Project’s YouTube channel for some delicious real food meals we make on a regular basis!
  2. Regular exercise. Of course, we all know exercise is good for us! But did you know regular exercise can boost our cognitive abilities? Certain hormones, which are increased during exercise, help improve memory and thinking. These hormones are growth factors called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). In fact, people who exercise often improve their memory performance and showed greater increase in brain blood flow to the hippocampus, the key brain region that deals with converting short- to long-term memory and is particularly affected by Alzheimer’s disease. I discuss exercise in depth in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart.
  3. Seeing stress as good for youA 2013 study used two videos: one depicting stress as debilitating to performance and one detailing the ways in which stress enhances the human brain and body. Participants who viewed the latter video scored higher on the Stress Mindset Scale—they saw stress as something that enhanced, rather than diminished, their performance, and their health and happiness improved. The intellectual performance and happiness of those who watched the video describing the debilitating effect of toxic stress, however, suffered. Worrying about stress will actually put your body into toxic stress, which will impact your mental and physical health. If you are constantly stressed about stress, stress will become an obstacle on your path to success. Changing our attitude towards stress is therefore essential to a healthy mental and physical self-care regimen. And the good news is that we can choose how we view stress. You can learn to face a challenge and deal with it. You can learn how to not let stress defeat you! You can, as I love to say, “freak out in the love zone”!
  4. Never stop learning. We are deeply intellectual beings. We are designed to learn and remember—learning is an essential part of any mental self-care regimen. I have developed a learning technique called the Switch on Your Brain with the 5-step Learning Process, which makes use of the way the brain builds memory. I discuss the importance of learning and this 5-step process in my new book, Think, Learn, Succeed, which will be available this August. 
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