Maintaining mental acuity is a major concern for people as they age — they want to make the most of their golden years rather than have to struggle through them. In fact, adults are more than twice as likely to fear losing their mental capacity as their physical capacity, according to a 2006 poll by Research!America, a nonprofit public education and advocacy alliance.
While many know the basics when it comes to keeping their minds sharp (stick with those crosswords), a crop of new research is showing that lifestyle choices may play an even bigger role than people realize, particularly in terms of memory. Factors — some positive, some negative — range from diet to unlikely medications and hormonal changes.
"Most people feel that they are victims when it comes to Alzheimer's and memory loss," says Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, author of the new book The Anti-Alzheimer's Prescription.
But Fortanasce points out that there's a difference between mental agility, which is our ability to multi-task and do things quickly, and mental capacity, which is our ability to reason and use our experience. When we age, just as we naturally lose physical agility, we lose mental agility. But you can do something about, even increase, your mental capacity as you grow older, Fortanasce says.
How And What We Eat
Fortanasce's four-step method for staving off Alzheimer's includes dietary advice that stresses the importance of balance in the foods you consume (one-third carbohydrates, one-third protein, one-third fat) as well as the order in which you eat them.
Carbohydrates are to the brain what cigarettes are to the lungs, according to Dr. Vincent Fortanasce.
By regularly gorging on the white bread that's complimentary at restaurants, you're spiking your insulin. You may also be causing the insulin-degrading enzyme that exists in the brain to work overtime removing insulin, rather than getting rid of beta-amyloid proteins, the toxic protein that produces Alzheimer's disease. Carbohydrates are to the brain what cigarettes are to the lungs, Fortanasce says.
Research published in the latest issue of the journal Neurology also shows that eating fish may help prevent memory loss and stroke in healthy, older adults.
The study looked at the brain scans of more than 2,300 people age 65 and older. It found that those who ate broiled or baked tuna and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, mackerel, anchovies) three or more times per week had a nearly 26 per cent lower risk that the silent brain lesions would be linked to dementia and stroke.
There was no benefit for those who ate fried fish or skipped it altogether, says Dr. David Siscovick, study author and professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Washington.
The wrong dietary choices can have a significantly adverse impact. Consider a study out of Loughborough and Oxford Universities last month, funded by the Alzheimer's Research Trust, concerning the high consumption of soy foods, such as tofu.
Of 700 elderly Indonesians, those who ate tofu at least once a day had an increased risk of dementia or memory loss, particularly if they were over age 65. Researchers believe the link might be due to soy products' phytoestrogens, which may offer some neural benefits to the middle-aged and young but could harm those over 65.
The estrogen effect
The side effects of changes in estrogen in some midlife women may also explain their forgetfulness.
A new study out of the University of Illinois at Chicago shows for the first time that the more hot flashes a woman has, the worse her memory performance, or recollection of words, names, paragraphs and stories. By using monitors to record subjects' hot flashes, researchers also found that women tend to underreport the number of hot flashes they experience by more than 40 per cent. In other words, women may be frequently experiencing the menopausal symptom and its effects without realizing it.
"What comes from this is women can have the comfort of knowing this is really just a physiological event," says Pauline Maki, University of Illinois at Chicago associate professor of psychiatry and psychology and the study's lead author.
Medicine and the mind
Another new study surprisingly shows that taking cholesterol-lowering statins may be good for the mind, possibly due to the drugs' ability to lower high insulin levels in the brain that are associated with dementia.
The research looked at Mexican Americans with metabolic conditions that put them at high risk for dementia, Alzheimer's or cognitive impairment. Taking statins for five to seven years may cut a person's risk of dementia by half, says Mary Haan, epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and lead author of the study.
That's not a good enough reason on its own to start taking statins yet, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't approved the medication for this particular use, and it's not clear which statins might provide the most brain benefits. But the research shows how, often unknowingly, so many of our actions can have an impact our cognitive function and memory.
As Fortanasce says, "People have more control than they realize."