Doctor: Keeping the brain healthy is as important as exercising the body

February 5, 2014

As the body ages, so, too, does the brain, and to help avoid developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of memory loss, the brain must be treated to mental and physical exercises, a healthy diet and visits to the doctor, when necessary.

Dr. Gary Small, a medical doctor, professor of psychiatry and director of the UCLA Longevity Center, spoke to a crowd of mainly those over 60 during a Town Hall South lecture Tuesday in the auditorium of Upper St. Clair High School.

When asked if audience members often forget names or objects like keys, almost every hand went up.

No matter the intellectual level or lifestyle, memory loss affects everyone, mainly during the later years of life. For many, the loss is minimal, like losing a wallet or forgetting an appointment. For others, losing portions of the mind and loving memories can be devastating.

Small’s expertise ranges from Alzheimer’s disease prevention to memory enhancement, and he was quick to hand out tricks to help keep memory loss to a minimum.

When there is a list of items needed from stores, Small suggested using a mental snapshot, like a picture. For example, Small said his wife once asked him to purchase a pumpkin for Halloween and also to pick up a strand of pearls at the jeweler. Small told the audience he visualized a pumpkin with a string of pearls draped around the stem. If he needed to purchase eggs at the store and also make a stop at the shoemaker, he takes a “snapshot” of dropping eggs on his shoes.

Names also can be stored away in the brain by associating something with the person, such as a man named Harry who has lots of hair. A man with the last name of Bender could be associated with a mental picture of him bending over or of the man going on an alcoholic bender.

Stories can be composed to remember a long list of names or items.

“Learn to focus your attention,” Small said. “Take a mental snapshot and connect the two.”

It also works when parking a car in a large lot. Suppose you’re parking in aisle B3. Instead of trying to remember B3, visualize in your mind three bees flying above the car.

Keeping the brain “muscle” healthy takes time and energy, but the end result is worth the effort, Small said. Train the brain, but don’t strain it.

The brain, like the body, needs oxygen, and one way to enhance the oxygen intake is to take a brisk walk, preferably with a friend. The walk not only improves the brain, but also the body, and walking with a friend provides socialization, also important for brain health

Current medical tests are able to detect early-onset Alzheimer’s earlier. Some medications that are taken to improve overall health can result in symptoms that mimic Alzheimer’s. Small said to always have a list of medications when visiting any medical provider.

Stress is another contributor to dementia and Alzheimer’s. Lowering stress levels can be accomplished by engaging in stimulating conversations or by simply closing the eyes, taking deep breaths and visualizing the relaxation of face and neck muscles. Taking 20-second stress breaks, along with exercise and a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables and fish, works wonders.

Another possible way to reduce the risk of developing dementia is to drink red wine, in moderation, Small said, and consuming caffeine, also in moderation. Studies to confirm the effects continue.
For some reason, the population of India suffers less from dementia. Small said it could be the result of consuming curry in larger quantities than the average American diet.

There are an estimated 5 million people in the United States who suffer from Alzheimer’s, a disease first identified in 1906, and about 35 million in the world. Scientists continue to conduct tests, and to develop medication.

Small has dedicated his life to helping patients develop a healthy brain.

He must practice what he preaches, because Small gave the entire lecture without once referring to his notes.