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Hth Rev
Photograph by Rebecca Hale, NGS Staff
How to Help
November 2007
Memory Boosters: How to Help
Keep this in mind: Already some five million Americans have Alzheimer's disease, a figure set to triple by 2050 as the U.S. population ages. The result is a huge push to aid the aging brain. Many studies seem to link both mental and physical exercise to a well-oiled memory and less severe age-related decline. But proving cause and effect is hard. People with better brainpower may simply be more active, and some scientists warn that the evidence is slim-to-none in favor of individuals being able to control mental destiny. Still, some actions may be worth the effort.

Stress signals
New research supports the long-held belief that distress and anxiety are bad for the brain. A recent report links chronic stress with a mild form of cognitive impairment that can be a precursor to Alzheimer's disease.

Mind games
Brainteasers have not been proven to fend off dementia. Yet scientists say puzzle away—anything that takes you out of your normal range of thinking (or lightens your mood) can't hurt. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are options for puzzle haters.

Give it a rest
"Poor sleep before or after learning makes it hard to encode new memories," says Harvard neurophysiologist Robert Stickgold. Data suggest a good night's sleep improves motor memory up to 30 percent after a lesson (e.g., piano). Leaving six hours between pursuits helps keep one skill from crowding out another.

Help your heart
Your brain will likely benefit, too, from a healthy diet (antioxidant-rich foods like blueberries may protect brain cells, aiding memory), regular exercise, and possibly light use of alcohol (a new study indicates a daily glass might slow dementia).

Cheat
Keep lists, jot reminders, repeat names aloud. And rely on others. "I just ask my wife," says Johns Hopkins neurologist Barry Gordon. "She remembers 99 percent of everything. She's a perfect memory aid."