Tue, Apr 24, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Brain drain

Though mental abilities inevitably decline as we age, the good news is intellect remains the same, as does the ability to grow intellectually and emotionally

By Vikki Conwell  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ATLANTA, GEORGIA

Chris Ratuszny, 26, is prepped for surgery for a brain aneurysm at St. Luke's Roosevelt hospital in Manhattan.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

If you can't remember why you walked into the room (or picked up this newspaper), don't worry. You're probably just getting older.

During your 30s, the blood flow to your brain begins to decrease, making it more challenging to remember events or details as well or as quickly. Despite the decline in mental abilities, your intellect remains the same, as does your ability to grow intellectually and emotionally.

"This is great news," says Larry Tune, professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine, referring to a former belief that the brain essentially stopped growing at a certain age. "The brain continues to develop, and we continue to grow, but in different ways," he says.

Fighting the inevitable mental decline takes the same effort as does the fight against the body's aging process. The brain and body are intimately related, so what's good for one is also good for the other. And that's diet and exercise.

The brain requires a continuous source of fuel from the foods we eat, so start each day with a nutritious breakfast and continue with healthy meals and snacks throughout the day, recommends the American Dietetic Association. Studies indicate that green leafy vegetables, fruits like blueberries and strawberries and fatty fish aid short-term memory and delay dementia.

Along with eating a well-balanced diet, keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels low to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Both illnesses contribute to dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Exercise not only helps lower blood pressure but also helps your body deliver oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Staying physically active is essential to keep the mind healthy.

The brain operates on the "use it or lose it" principle, says Carol Dallas, a neurotherapist. Depending on what we use or don't, the network of highways carrying information in the brain can be reduced to a few roads and sidewalks, she says.

Dallas says there are key exercises that work the brain, such as cross-lateral movements that require both sides of the body and the brain to operate together.

"Down the road, there might be a room at local health clubs where you can do brain exercises," says psychologist Neal Cohen, referring to brain workout programs now available online and on DVDs. By working the body and mind, "you can do something to offset senior moments," he says.

Studies suggest that challenging your mind with crossword puzzles, memory tests and reading may also contribute to better brain function. Mental calisthenics keep the brain stimulated and active.

"I usually tell people it's much better to read a book than to watch Gilligan's Island," Tune says.

KEEPING THE HARDWARE HEALTHY

Here are some recommendations to keep the physical plant going strong:

— Stay active. Regular physical activity helps to maintain and improve memory, maintain and improve mental ability and prevent dementia.

— Check your numbers. Keep blood pressure and cholesterol levels low. A healthy blood pressure (below 120/80) helps reduce the risk of stroke, which may lead to dementia and Alzheimer's disease. An excess of cholesterol slows down and can block blood flow to the brain, contributing to stroke and dementia. In one study, those who had high cholesterol and high blood pressure had six times the risk of dementia.

— Eat your vegetables. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and nonfat dairy products provides ample nutrition for the brain.

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