Expert Prescribes a Healthier Lifestyle as Good Medicine for the Brain

April 22, 2016

If you have occasional mental lapses, such as losing your keys or forgetting the name of an acquaintance, don’t despair, says longevity expert Gary Small.

His research and other studies show “you can have a huge impact on improving your brain health and staving off cognitive problems” by practicing memory training techniques, managing your stress and living an overall healthy lifestyle, says Small, 64, a geriatric psychiatrist and director of the UCLA Longevity Center. “I’ve seen how getting people to walk regularly and eat right enhances their life for many years to come.”

It’s possible to do this in people who are struggling with occasional memory glitches but less effective among those already dealing with advanced cognitive impairment or even Alzheimer’s disease, says Small, the coauthor of several books, including his latest, 2 Weeks to a Younger Brain, written with his wife, Gigi Vorgan.

He’s living a brain-healthy lifestyle, and he encourages others to do the same by:

Practicing memory training. To train your memory, Small suggests that you “focus and frame. Focus is paying attention, and framing involves creating visual images and mental associations that give meaning to your memories,” he says. If you meet someone named Jack who is in great shape, then imagine him doing jumping jacks so that you have a visual image to help you recall his name.

Reducing stress. He manages his stress by taking brief but regular relaxation breaks throughout the day, such as stretching, meditating or having conversations with friends. He also recommends yoga, exercise, tai chi, restful sleep, cutting back on multitasking, lightening your load, laughing, getting organized and asking for help.

Staying mentally active. “I do puzzles every morning. Writing the books with my wife is a great mental exercise.” To stay mentally active, you can learn new things, search the Internet, engage in stimulating conversations and do sudoku, crossword or other puzzles, Small says. “We have less evidence that mental stimulation protects against Alzheimer’s, but we still encourage it.”

Getting enough sleep. “Sleep is an active process when the brain heals itself,” he says. “If you get enough sleep, you have less amyloid plaque” and “less inflammation in the brain. I treasure my sleep, so I do whatever I can to get enough.”

Exercising regularly. “If you exercise regularly, your hippocampus, one of the brain’s key memory centers, will grow, and a bigger brain is a better brain.” — Nanci Hellmich