UM neurology expert shares tips for maintaining mental abilities while aging

Published 1:20 pm Thursday, January 4, 2024

By Edwin Smith

Brain function normally lessens with age, but there are ways to slow the decline, a University of Mississippi neurology expert advises.

As people grow older, the size of key brain regions – including the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus – may start to reduce in volume, said Paul Loprinzi, associate professor of exercise science.

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“As the brain literally shrinks, the communication among neurons in these regions may also start to be compromised,” he said.

There are key distinctions between “natural” memory loss and memory loss possibly caused by disease, such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

“Natural memory loss with aging may include, for example, forgetting aspects of an event, being able to eventually remember aspects of the event later and generally able to follow verbal/written directions,” Loprinzi said. “In contrast, memory loss due to pathological reasons is often characterized as forgetting the entire event, rarely able to remember the event later and a gradual inability to follow verbal/written directions/instructions.”

Regular exercise is a practical, inexpensive way that people can improve brain function, he said.

“Physical activity raises blood flow to the whole body, including the brain,” Loprinzi said. “The increased network of capillaries from regular exercise could help to provide added nourishment to the brain to keep one’s memory sharp.

“Regular exercise has also been shown to increase the number and size of neurons in the brain, and also improve the communication among these neurons, all of which may help with cognitive function, including memory.”

For most healthy adults, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes weekly of vigorous aerobic activity, such as jogging.

If you don’t have time for a full workout, try a few 10-minute walks throughout the day.

Other suggestions:

  • Eat healthy. Eat fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Choose low-fat protein sources, such as fish, beans and skinless poultry. What you drink also counts. Too much alcohol can lead to confusion and memory loss.
  • Reduce stress. Keep track of tasks, appointments and other events in a notebook, calendar or electronic planner. You might even repeat each entry out loud as you write it down to help keep it in your memory. Keep to-do lists up to date. Check off items you’ve finished. Keep your wallet, keys, glasses and other essential items in a set place in your home so they are easy to find.
  • Limit distractions. Don’t do too many things at once. If you focus on the information that you’re trying to remember, you’re more likely to recall it later. It also might help to connect what you’re trying to remember to a favorite song or a familiar saying or idea.
  • Stay intellectually stimulated. Just as physical activity keeps your body in shape, activities that engage your mind help keep your brain in shape. And those activities might help prevent some memory loss. Do crossword puzzles. Read. Play games. Learn to play a musical instrument. Try a new hobby. Volunteer at a local school or with a community group.
  • Rest well. Not getting enough sleep has been linked to memory loss, as have restless sleep and sleep that gets disturbed often. Make getting enough healthy sleep a priority. Adults should sleep seven to nine hours a night on a regular basis. If snoring disrupts sleep, make an appointment to see your health care provider. Snoring could be a sign of a sleep disorder, such as apnea.
  • Manage chronic health problems. Follow your health care provider’s advice for dealing with medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, hearing loss and obesity. The better you take care of yourself, the better your memory is likely to be. Regularly review medicines you take with your health care provider. Some medicines can affect memory.
  • Spend time with others. Social interaction helps ward off depression and stress. Both of those can contribute to memory loss. Look for opportunities to get together with loved ones, friends and other people, especially if you live alone.
  • Seek help. If you’re worried about memory loss, make an appointment with your health care provider. If memory loss affects your ability to do your daily activities, if you notice your memory getting worse or if a family member or friend is concerned about your memory loss, it’s particularly important to get help. At your appointment, your provider likely will do a physical exam and check your memory and problem-solving skills. Treatment depends on what’s causing memory loss.