Lifestyle changes improve cognitive function in just two weeks
A report published in the June, 2006 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry revealed the conclusion of UCLA researchers that adopting a healthy longevity lifestyle program involving memory and physical exercises, an optimal diet, and stress reduction amounts to increased brain efficiency among its practitioners after 14 days.
The study included 17 men and women aged 35-69 with normal memory performance scores. Eight participants were assigned to the following daily regimen: memory exercises such as crossword puzzles and brainteasers to stimulate the brain, walks to improve physical fitness, five small meals per day including abundant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and low glycemic carbohydrates to provide an optimal diet, and daily relaxation exercises to manage stress and help decrease the release of cortisol, a hormone that can impair memory. The remaining 9 participants practiced their usual lifestyle routines. The subjects completed cognitive performance tests and self-assessments of memory before and after the study period, and received positron emission tomography (PET) scans to evaluate regional cerebral metabolism during mental rest.
After two weeks, the group following the healthy longevity lifestyle program was found to have a five percent decrease in brain metabolism in working memory regions, which means that their brains did not have to work as hard to accomplish tasks. Participants in the improved lifestyle group also had better verbal fluency, which is controlled by the same brain region. The control group demonstrated no significant changes in any of the areas evaluated in the study.
Lead researcher Dr Gary Small, who is a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior stated, "We've known for several years that diet and exercise can help people maintain their physical health and live longer, but maintaining mental health is just as important. The UCLA study is the first to show the impact of memory exercises and stress reduction used together with a healthy diet and physical exercise to improve brain and cognitive function."
"The research demonstrates that in just 14 days, simple lifestyle changes can not only help overall health, but also improve memory and brain function," Dr Small concluded. "Our next step is to assess the individual effects of each lifestyle strategy, which may help us develop an optimal combination.”
It is estimated that up to one third of adults will experience a gradual decline in cognitive function known as mild cognitive impairment as they age (Low LF et al 2004; Busse A et al 2003). Less severe than dementia, mild cognitive impairment is defined as cognitive defects that do not interfere with daily living. It may include slower thinking, a reduced ability to learn, and impaired memory. While many conventional physicians view these defects as an inevitable consequence of aging, newer research has uncovered possible reasons for mild cognitive impairment and has also identified potential therapies that may enable people to battle age-related mental decline more effectively than ever before. Minimizing cognitive defects will become even more important as the average life span continues to lengthen and hundreds of thousands of people head into their 80s and 90s, when the risk for cognitive decline is greatest.
In one prospective study, more than 500 participants age 55 or older without clinical symptoms of dementia were evaluated. Their diets were assessed at the onset of the study, and participants were screened for symptoms of dementia an average of two years later. After adjusting for other factors, participants with the highest total fat intake were found to have a significantly elevated relative risk of dementia. An increased risk of dementia was also associated with a high dietary intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. On the other hand, a high intake of fish was associated with a significantly lower risk of dementia (Kalmijn V et al 1997). These findings have been supported in several other studies (Solfrizzi V et al 2005; Solfrizzi V et al 2003; Solfrizzi V et al 1999; Panza F et al 2004; Capurso A et al 2000).
Essential fatty acids are required for many biological functions, including protection from the oxidative effects of free radicals. They are also known to be important for good overall brain health, and a recent study demonstrated in animal models that supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids actually switched on brain cell genes that contribute to enhanced functioning (Fontani G et al 2005; Kitajka K et al 2004). These biochemical details may help us understand why diets rich in fish oils and other sources of omega-3 fatty acids are associated with better memory and improved cognition (Kalmijn S et al 1997).
As humans age, physical and biochemical changes in brain cells can lead to significant cognitive impairment.
For many years, the conventional dogma was that forgetfulness, slowed speech, and difficulty with mental tasks were natural consequences of aging.
In order to safeguard our cognitive abilities, however, we need to be vigilant and take the necessary steps to protect against the ravages of brain cell aging.
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