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How to Get Brainier

Ask the next person you see for a rundown of his or her favorite things to do, and he or she will probably rattle off a few like, “spending time with family and friends,” or “traveling abroad,” or “watching my sports team win a big game.” Chances are, the mention will probably bring back fond memories and a smile. But what happens when those memories start to become hazy? Dr. Maria Santiago, a neurologist with Collier Neurologic Specialists, gives us the rundown on how eating well, exercising your brain—and body—and socializing can keep your brain sharp.


Q: What can people do to slow memory loss and keep their brains working?

A: There are multiple studies that have demonstrated that physical fitness and staying healthy are associated not only with physical health but also memory preservation, normal brain activity and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. Activity at any age should involve regular physical activity as well as brain exercises that I recommend to all our patients. With the brain, just like muscles, the more you use them, the better it is for overall health and preservation of synaptic connections.


Q: What kinds of brain exercises are best?

A: I recommend simple things like crossword puzzles or jigsaw puzzles, playing checkers, chess or bridge. It doesn’t have to be very complex or costly—simply something that will be new each time.

Another thing I tell patients is to do something that interests them. For example, musicians—if they are used to playing an instrument, maybe they could learn to play a different one, or different tunes. It’s not a good exercise if they know a piece by heart, but learning a new piece is challenging. The same thing goes for learning new languages. The key is to challenge the brain to learn new things.


Q: What about foods? Are there any in particular that are best for memory loss prevention?

A: Healthy eating habits are crucial. Eating a lot of fish and antioxidant compounds found in nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables are essential for prevention of brain aging.


Q: Does interacting with people help?

A: We don’t know if socializing alone is the stimulant or if it’s that socializing makes a more conducive environment for activities that stimulate the brain. For example, people who participate in social networks and play games or do activities together benefit from human interaction and stimulation, which prevents depression.


Q: What should people avoid as far as things that can contribute to memory loss?

A: Things that should be avoided are excessive alcohol, smoking, secondhand smoke, obesity, sedentarism or lack of physical activity. Getting enough sleep helps in memory loss prevention also.


Q: How much of memory loss is “normal” with aging? What should people do when they notice they’re starting to have trouble remembering things?

A: There is a normal aging process. As we grow older, there are fewer challenges, less activity that occurs normally. Forgetting names of people you see occasionally or that you are not very familiar with would be a fairly normal sign of aging. But when you start to forget names of family members, people who you see regularly or caregivers, those could be signs of severe memory dysfunction. Forgetting names for a very short period of time and then coming up with the name soon after is very commonly reported by patients, but when they forget completely they have experienced an event, that’s a little more concerning. At that point, they should contact a physician.

Another warning sign is mood changes. It may be a very early sign of Alzheimer’s disease if a person has unpredictable mood changes or becomes apathetic and uninterested in things that were normally very important to him or her.


Q: What are some other signs of memory loss that might indicate the need to see a doctor?

A: Normal aging would have associated mild memory lapses. Patients who have more difficulty as they age with multi-tasking, a poor attention span or even depression can be associated with memory dysfunction without falling into the category of dementia. When patients have questions regarding their memory, they need to discuss it with their doctors. There are many factors that play a role in memory loss, such as insomnia, depression or vitamin deficiencies, and simple measures may be very helpful.


Q: Are there any differences between men and women when it comes to memory loss?

A: It has to do more with their education and whether they have a family history of dementia, depression or alcohol abuse than it does with gender.


Q: What are the latest developments in treating memory loss?

A: There is more research being done on new medications, including a vaccine that has been in the works for quite some time. We are still trying to find something that would help us cure this condition. So far, we are only able to slow down the progression up to a point through the use of medicine.


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