Weight Loss – Can losing weight sharpen your memory?
Does being overweight put you at risk for developing a memory disorder? The latest research suggests that it does. According to a study published in the British Medical Journal, people who were overweight in their 405 were 35 percent more likely to develop a memory disorder later in life than were normal-weight individuals; those who were obese had a 74 percent greater risk.
Overweight or not, memory changes don’t necessarily indicate a serious disorder. Stress, fatigue, anxiety, and depression can all affect your ability to remember. So if you find yourself forgetting the name of a family member more often than you used to, don’t panic: An occasional memory lapse doesn’t mean you’re destined to lose your mental faculties or develop dementia, a condition caused by the death of nerve cells in the brain.
Dementia generally entails the loss of memory and reasoning skills; symptoms may include personality, mood, and behavioral changes. For dementia to be diagnosed, the changes must be significant enough to affect one’s ability to perform everyday tasks, such as baking a cake or balancing a checkbook. There are many causes of dementia, the most common being Alzheimer’s disease.
It is estimated that one in ten people over age 65 and as many as one in two people over age 85 have Alzheimer’s. Since less than 5 percent of cases can be attributed to a known genetic mutation, some researchers are turning their attention to the role that lifestyle factors might play.
Mind Your Health
You’re probably aware that obesity increases your risk of developing a host of ailments, including hypertension, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Developing any one of them not only puts you at risk for heart attacks and strokes but also ups your chances of developing dementia as you age.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE can interfere with blood flow to the brain, thereby killing off nerve cells, says David Knopman, M.D., a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The condition can also precipitate a variety of strokes, including mini-strokes (also called silent strokes), which often escape detection. The Framingham Heart Study found that men with high blood pressure fared worse on memory and other cognitive tests 4 to 6 years later than did those who had normal blood pressure.
DIABETES damages small arteries that carry oxygen and blood throughout the brain, says Dr. Knopman. A newer theory suggests that a lack of insulin in a diabetic’s brain results in a buildup of sticky plaques that may, in turn, lead to Alzheimer’s. In a nine-year study of nuns, priests, and other members of the clergy, those with diabetes had a 65 percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Other research, from the Nurses’ Health Study, found that women with type 2 diabetes were at a greater risk of doing poorly on cognitive and memory tests than were women without the disease.
METABOLIC SYNDROME (or syndrome X) may put you at risk for dementia because the condition is linked to inflammation of the arteries. In a study published in the Annals of Neurology, people with high levels of C-reactive protein (which indicates inflammation) were more likely to be diagnosed with dementia 25 years later. Metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of conditions including abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, high LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high levels of blood sugar.
CHOLESTEROL has also been implicated in dementia, but it is unclear whether low cholesterol levels themselves or medications used to lower cholesterol are responsible for reducing risk. Research has suggested that cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins might protect against Alzheimer’s, but a recent study found this not to be the case.
Food for Thought
When it comes to nutrition, it turns out that what’s good for your weight loss is good for your brain. To promote healthy brain function, eat more foods rich in antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, says Jeannie Moloo, Ph.D., R.D., a nutrition consultant in private practice in Sacramento, California, and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Studies have shown that a diet high in saturated fats may clog the arteries and may be associated with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Pick healthier fats, such as olive oil, instead. As for produce, research suggests that dark-skinned fruits—such as blueberries, plums, red grapes, and strawberries—and vegetables such as red peppers, kale, spinach, broccoli, and beets may protect brain cells, thanks to high levels of antioxidants.
Other brain-healthy picks include nuts and seeds such as walnuts, almonds, and sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Also, don’t forget the fish: A 2003 study published in the Archives of Neurology found that eating fish at least once a week was associated with a 6o percent reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Cold-water fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and tuna are especially rich in omega-3s.
A Workout for Your Brain
If you’re trying to lose weight, you may be hitting the gym in the hope that it will help you slim down. Keep going, and your brain may see the payoff, too. Exercise boosts blood flow to the brain and encourages the growth of new brain cells.
And since exercise may reduce your chances of developing diabetes or suffering a stroke—which increase your risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia—it potentially offers you a two-pronged approach to fighting cognitive decline, says Deborah Barnes, Ph.D., a research fellow in aging at the University of California at San Francisco.
Try It Again (and Again)
That old adage “use it or lose it” is especially true when it comes to maintaining your brain as you age. Keeping your brain active may build your reserve of brain cells, increase connections between cells, and possibly generate new cells. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people who did activities such as crossword puzzles and board games had a reduced risk of dementia.
Not into games? Play a musical instrument or go shopping (it forces you to make decisions about where to go and what to buy). The idea is to challenge your mind, whatever your age: Why not study a new language, join a poker group, or take a cooking class? If you’re too busy, think smaller.
“Move your wastebasket every few weeks,” says Elizabeth Edgerly, Ph.D., codeveloper for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Maintain Your Brain workshop. “Your brain has to think about where it is and plot the course to get there.” Other brain builders: Read a variety of magazines, attend lectures, or record your thoughts in a journal.