Healthy heart helps fight dementia

Q: I am taking care of my aging parents, and I am realizing that their memory is getting much worse. I've heard about the importance of brain training to help combat conditions like dementia and Alzheimer's, but I'm not sure what it is. Can you help?

A: Scientists know that memory is linked to many factors. While there is no magic pill that guarantees the ability to retain and recall information, there are steps we all can take to help improve the chances of staying sharp.

Few people associate memory with the heart, but they are related. The healthier the heart, the healthier the brain.

Knowing your numbers can give you a good starting point from which to assess your current state of health. Start by recording your weight and waistline measurement, and have your blood pressure and cholesterol levels checked, and if they are elevated, take a good look at your lifestyle habits. The brain must be supplied with sufficient oxygen and nutrients in order to for the cells to stay alive and work properly. Conditions that reduce blood flow can starve these all-important brain cells.

Move to improve. Regular physical activity has been shown to decrease the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease by nearly half. Strive for at least 30 minutes a day.

Sleep. Imaging of the brain and behavioral studies show the impact that sleep deprivation has on learning and memory. The ability to remember is tied to the memory becoming stable in the brain, a function known as consolidation. It is believed that inadequate sleep interferes with consolidation. Strive for seven to eight hours of sleep nightly.

Workouts aren't just for the body. Thoughts dictate action, making brain training just as important as physical training. Throughout your lifetime, your brain is capable of adapting, reorganizing and even building new neural pathways (dubbed the "information highways" of the brain). These neural pathways form the basis of your cognitive skills, which not only make up IQ but also influence your ability to process, retain and recall information.

Chill out! We live in a fast-paced society, and many of us are on the go from the moment we wake up in the morning. This makes it all the more important to seek out ways to de-stress and regroup. The body reacts to chronic stress by increasing production of the hormone cortisol, which has been linked to memory loss.

Don't smoke. Aside from increasing your risk of lung damage and heart disease, smoking can affect blood flow to the brain. One study on the effects of smoking on more 5,000 people concluded that smokers were much less likely to retain information.

Next week: Foods to help boost memory.