April 1, 2011 at 7:31 am , by Julie Bain
Renowned Baltimore neurologist and author Majid T. Fotuhi, M.D., a member of the LHJ Medical Advisory Board, shares his fun, creative and surprising tips to sharpen your memory and make your brain grow. Guess what beats crossword puzzles? Ballroom dancing!
Dr. Fotuhi is writing a new book with all the latest research on how to increase your brain power that should be out in early 2012. It’s a follow-up to his popular The Memory Cure: How to Protect Your Brain Against Memory Loss and Alzheimer’s Disease.
LHJ: Why do we start having trouble remembering things as we age?
MTF: The part of the brain used for short-term memory is called the hippocampus, and it’s very sensitive to what’s going on in your body. For example, stress, trauma and depression can all shrink the hippocampus. It’s the first part of the brain to show signs of shrinkage. That’s why people have problems with their short-term memory but don’t forget how to ride a bike or cook.
LHJ: Yikes! We all have too much stress! What can we do to stop our brains from shrinking?
MTF: A major study published in 2010 showed that three months of aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus enough that it can be seen by the naked eye on a brain scan.
LHJ: So if your hippocampus is bigger, does that mean it works better?
MTF: Yes. The single most important factor that determines who stays sharp and who develops dementia has to do with the size of the hippocampus.
LHJ: Okay, then. So how much do I have to exercise to get an enormous hippocampus?
MTF: Well, I’m planning to do studies to determine the optimum dose of aerobic exercise. But so far it appears that exercising at least three times a week for approximately 45 minutes seems to be in the hippocampus-growing zone.
LHJ: Okay, that’s not crazy. That’s doable.
MTF: You know, I’ve been in this field for 25 years and I find it astonishing that your brain can grow that much over a three-month period. If a drug could do that…
LHJ: They’d make billions! But it’s not that easy to actually get people up off the couch, right?
MTF: But now that you know that you can see the difference in the size of your hippocampus and that determines whether you stay sharp or you lose your cognitive abilities, don’t you have a much stronger incentive to get on a treadmill?
LHJ: Yes, yes I do. How vigorous does that 45 minutes of aerobic exercise have to be to get the job done? Do I have to be sweating, where I can barely talk, or could I be briskly walking around the neighborhood?
MTF: I think walking can do it. There was a study published in the Journal of Neurology in 2010 that showed that the more a person walked, the bigger was his or her hippocampus. And they determined that the optimal dose was walking about five to six miles a week. Other studies have shown that with more vigorous exercise—let’s say, two hours of rigorous exercise three times a week versus 45 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week—the overall health benefit is only a little bit more. So we have to find out if the same is true for the hippocampus, and as I said, I’m working on that. I’ve just opened my Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness in Baltimore, and my plan is to open branches in Washington D.C. and New York in the next two years. The goal is to increase people’s physical and mental fitness in nine months and make their hippocampus bigger, as if they were three to five years younger.
LHJ: Besides exercise, what else can we do to keep our brain sharp?
MTF: Reduce stress. The longer you’re stressed, the smaller your hippocampus. People with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder have a smaller hippocampus. But the good news is that once the depression or anxiety is treated, there’s a reversal in the size of the hippocampus.
LHJ: It’s amazing how plastic it is.
MTF: So I would say, just “chill.” Put things in perspective and realize that as big as that deadline may appear to you, the world will not fall apart if you don’t meet it.
LHJ: That’s good advice. I’ll tell my boss you said that.
MTF: And your boss should consider working a little less as well.
JB: What else should we be doing for our brains?
MTF: Eat a good healthy diet. The Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease between 40 and 50 percent. Don’t get obese. Take an algal DHA supplement (meaning it comes from algae)—1,000 mg a day. Forty percent of the brain is composed of omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA, and people who take DHA on a regular basis are less likely to get dementia. And it helps with learning. One of the things we plan to do in our upcoming neurology institute is determine how much DHA you need to increase the size of your hippocampus.
JB: Are crossword puzzles good for our brains?
MTF: People who like to solve puzzles and problems in general often do well in the long run. I encourage an attitude of problem solving, like if something is broken in the kitchen. Say the timer on the microwave’s not working. You can just bang on it and call someone to come fix it, or you can fiddle with it. Amuse yourself with it. Or if you have to figure out little mathematical calculations, don’t just reach for your calculator; do it for the fun of it. Look for little mini challenges. Assemble that book case. The point is, if you use your brain in different ways throughout the day, you keep your brain in top condition. I often talk about how dancing is good for your brain, especially ballroom dancing.
LHJ: I heard that you and your wife were taking tango lessons, right?
MTF: Yes, we love tango. The Alzheimer’s Association had a sort of Dancing with the Stars gala a couple of years ago, and we placed second in that competition. [That's Dr. Fotuhi and his gorgeous wife, Bita, left, dancing the tango to raise money for Alzheimer's.]
LHJ: Well, ballroom dancing is very much about memorization and learning steps and also the physical exercise, of course, so that makes perfect sense.
MTF: Right—this is an example of cross-training your brain because you’re thinking about steps, you’re strengthening the balance part of your brain and you’re having fun. Plus, you’re moving so you’re pumping blood to your brain and that’s really good.
The important thing is that you don’t want to do the same thing all the time. If you play the same game every day or do a crossword every day, then you’re not teasing and stimulating your brain as much. If you drive home the same way every day, you’re not thinking about it. But if you try a different way, even if you get lost, you’re teasing your brain in a good way. Or take a hike in the woods, identify plants and birds and insects. Find your way back. The brain has a lot of elasticity, and people who tease their brain all the time in different ways keep it in top condition.
For more great brain resources and inspiration, check out the Beautiful Minds website.
Brain illustration by istockphoto; tango photo by Dr. Dobbin Chow.
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