Can Mind, Body Workouts Hold Off Memory Loss?

As scientists left the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in Washington this weekend, they took with them the hopeful news that researchers may be on the verge of finding a way to treat memory loss.

The conclusion by researchers nationwide was that the mind and body are linked. Therefore, people who engage themselves mentally and take care of their bodies physically can stop or even reverse memory loss.

"These are very important findings," said APA president Ronald Levant. "Memory loss is an emerging problem because of the baby boom generation."

Alzheimer's Worries

The leading edge of that huge generation is turning 59 this year. The number of Alzheimer's cases will increase with the aging of that generation -- tripling from 4.5 million in 2000 to 13.2 million by 2040, according to the American Medical Association -- unless a way is discovered to prevent the disease.

That, however, is a long way off. What isn't is the success people like Michele Rubin, 46, have experienced with programs to stimulate the brain and to take better care of the body.

Rubin, a mother of three who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif., began noticing several years ago that she could not remember names when she saw a face, or remember who appeared in a movie.

"My husband would say, 'I told you something,' and it would not even ring a bell," she said.

While such things are common complaints among people approaching middle age, they create worries about something more devastating than forgetfulness.

"We all have to worry about Alzheimer's and dementia as we age," said Rubin.

'Mental Aerobics'

She joined a program run by Dr. Gary Small, a psychiatrist who has directed research in aging at UCLA for 25 years.

"We're convinced," says Small, "that it is going to be much easier to protect a healthy brain rather than try to repair a brain once damage has set in."

Rubin took part in his program that combines simple mental exercise, which Small calls "mental aerobics," with lifestyle changes.

"It's a little like going to the gym and working out your muscles," said Small. "You can lift bigger weights with less energy. Your brain can do the same thing. You can perform better on memory tests, and you can use less brain energy to do that."

Rubin's brain scans already show positive changes.

"People need to realize that Alzheimer's disease is not an inevitable consequence of aging," said Small. "There's a lot we can do to improve our memory very quickly, to improve our brain health."

Physical Exercise

Researchers across the country support Small's findings. In addition to mental stimulation, all recommend regular exercise, taking part in stimulating leisure activities and following a diet high in antioxidants and low in fat.

In addition, some researchers believe high blood pressure, diabetes and stress are linked to memory loss and dementia.

"Although certain things aren't within our control, many are," said Levant, the APA president. "We can choose to read a novel instead of watching television, or take a walk instead of taking a nap."

After all, genetics may play only one third of the role in dementia, according to the UCLA neuropsychiatric center. In addition, studies show those with a higher level of education are less likely to lose their memory.

Dr. Yaakov Stern of Columbia University Medical Center in New York, who studies the brain's circuits, believes the combination of treating mind and body can help everyone who is aging.

There is no evidence yet that the effects of Alzheimer's can be reversed, said Stern. But he believes programs of mental stimulation, engaging the world around you, and diet and exercise can have a profound effect on the scope of the disease in the United States by delaying its onset.

"If you can just hold off Alzheimer's disease for five years," he said, "there'll be 50 percent fewer people with Alzheimer's disease in the world. So it really makes a big difference."

In her living room in California, Michele Rubin talked about following the program outlined by Small.

"It's not that complicated," she said. "It's a little bit obvious, but we don't do it."

Researchers hope more and more people will do it because of the potential impact on the aging baby boom generation.