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Originally published Monday, February 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Fighting memory loss through brain games, exercise and rest

Brain-game claims are spreading like spring weeds across the media, promising to help us reduce memory loss and even prevent Alzheimer's...

Brain-game claims are spreading like spring weeds across the media, promising to help us reduce memory loss and even prevent Alzheimer's disease as we grow older.

The reasoning: By exercising our minds through difficult new thinking tasks such as crossword puzzles and memory games, and by learning to use e-mail or speak French, we can keep our minds flexible and healthy.

Playing games to preserve our brains is a seductive idea, fueled by our fear of Alzheimer's. A survey in 2006 by MetLife Foundation showed Americans age 55 and older fear Alzheimer's disease more than any other diagnosis, even cancer. I understand. Since my mom died of Alzheimer's, and my name- and word-finding skills are plummeting, I want to know whether these claims are valid.

Some memory tasks stick with us better than others. You're much more likely to recognize that you've met someone before, for example, than you are to remember her name. But your failure to remember her name and many other things begins early in life. The average 45-year-old has a 35 percent loss in remembering a name compared with when he was 25. By age 65, there's a 62 percent deficit (compared to age 25) and by age 75, a 74 percent deficit.

Whew! So far, I feel normal.

It's called "Age-Associated Memory Impairment," a normal decline of memory as we age that's not associated with developing Alzheimer's disease. That's according to Thomas H. Crook, former chair of the National Institute of Mental Health and American Psychological Association Task Forces on the Diagnoses and Treatment of Age-Associated Memory Impairment. Crook wrote the excellent new book, "The Memory Advantage: Improve Your Memory, Mood and Confidence Throughout Life" (SelectBooks, Inc; $21.95).

There are other causes of memory loss in older people: some medications, stress, depression, heart disease, not drinking enough water, not eating nutritiously and certain medical problems. Diabetes, for example, is associated with memory loss among people with type 2 diabetes over age 65. "It's almost as if diabetes speeds up the normal process of brain aging," writes Crook.

At the University of Washington's VA Memory Wellness Program in Seattle, research is under way to explore the relationship between insulin, blood sugar and memory loss in older adults. One out of three Americans over age 60 has poor blood-sugar regulation — a factor related to memory loss, says lead investigator Suzanne Craft. Perhaps improving insulin activity will have a positive effect on memory, giving researchers new treatments in the future.

But what about now? Does playing games help?

The jury's still out, but here's some of what we know:

The most important way to keep your memory strong, experts agree, is to keep your brain healthy. That includes, "Think, Think, Think," says a great little flier published by the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) Foundation for Health in Aging (available at www.healthinaging.org/public_education/cognitive_vitality.pdf). Pushing your brain to try new games, recipes, languages, driving routes, technology and other new skills won't hurt you, and it's likely to help — because using your brain in new ways stimulates new neuron pathways or brain cells.

"A lot of studies are now using brain stimulation," says Jane Tornatore, a consultant with the Alzheimer's Association in Seattle and a therapist in private practice specializing in memory problems and mid-life transitions, "and some show memory improvement. While they may not actually prevent a dementing illness, they give families hope — something to do that may be helpful."

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Unfortunately, there's no miracle. "But from all of my reading and experience," says Tornatore, "exercise is the best thing we can do to keep our minds healthy." Echoes the AGS flyer: "Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which helps keep the brain healthy and working well. Exercise may even help new brain cells grow."

Another critical factor is diet. "Results from two recent studies suggest that people who exercise regularly or eat healthy diets are less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease," reports Craft, with even better results for those who do both. As an added benefit, "a healthy diet and regular exercise can improve your mood and help control your weight and blood pressure," all factors in keeping your brain working better.

Getting enough sleep and reducing stress are also important. "Older adults don't need less sleep than younger adults," says the AGS. Sleeping less than seven or eight hours can make it harder to concentrate and remember. And, over time, stress can make it hard to get a good night's rest. So finding ways to reduce your stress through exercise, prayer and meditation may help you sleep, plus improve your memory.

Want to help science solve this important mystery? Craft has a constant need for research volunteers. To learn what's involved, call Donna Davis, R.N., in Seattle at 206-764-2809.

Liz Taylor's column runs Mondays in the Northwest Life section. With 30 years experience in the aging field, she writes and conducts workshops. E-mail her at growingolder@seattletimes.com or write to P.O. Box 11601, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. You can see all of her columns at www.seattletimes.com/growingolder/.

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