Keep Your Brain in Shape

Author Sue Halpern says she has the answer and it doesn't require any co-pay.

Jane Glenn Haas

McClatchy Tribune

February 23, 2010


If I told you I had a drug that could improve memory, grow new brain cells, allow those brain cells to connect and help you live brain-sharp as you live longer, would you knock down my door or pay a lot of money?

Author Sue Halpern says she has the answer and it doesn't require any co-pay.

It's exercise. Physical exercise. And maybe a little mental exercise at the same time.

"It's kind of the same old, same old, but the truth is exercise works and the only side effects may be sore muscles," she says. "You don't have to swallow drugs or use weird supplements."

Halpern is the author of "Can't Remember What I Forgot: The Good News From the Front Lines of Memory Research" (Harmony Books, 2008). Spurring her research - which took her to several major university centers, including the University of California-Irvine (UCI) - is a personal quest. Her father experienced serious memory loss before his death and doctors could not say if he had Alzheimer's disease.

More than 80 percent of Americans are worried about not being able to remember names. Almost everyone fears each slip of memory means Alzheimer's in the future.

The fact is, most of us will not get Alzheimer's, Halpern says. But memory loss is common after age 35, she says.

Q: We live longer and we are freaked out about losing our memories. But it's not all Alzheimer's?

A: There are different kinds of dementia - like "hardening of the arteries" which presents the same way. We worry too much about the wrong things.

Q: For example?

A: People have turned themselves into chemical experiments and nobody knows the outcome. Someone says "drink this tea" or "take this supplement" and we are willing to cede our common sense to someone's outlandish claim.

Q: What should we do?

A: Well, have a brain imaging test if that's a worry. I got tested every which way and my basic reaction is that if this relieves your anxiety, why not. I've got a memory test on my Web site, www.suehalpern.com.

Q: For your book, you spoke with Dr. Rod Shankle and Carl Cotman, both at UCI.

A: I spent a lot of time with both of them. Dr. Shankle impressed me with a very simple 10-word list basic Alzheimer's screening test that's on the Alzheimer's Web site, www.alzoc.org. Cotman has been working with older beagles and discovered that old dogs can learn new tricks if they are eating right and have a lively and stimulating environment. So get out of the house, keep active and maintain a stimulating social life.

Q: You are not too supportive of some of the supplements like ginko?

A: All these things we think of as being benign could lead to bigger consequences than people realize. You have to watch what you are taking in tandem with other things. You don't know what you could be doing to yourself.

Q: How about "brain games" like Posit Science produces?

A: I really like that product and I think it's smart. It's one of the few software programs that has really been tested and shown to create great improvement. But it's time consuming and it's not intended to be "fun."

That makes it a great program when you are in a group setting or highly motivated but it's not the kind of memory game I would play alone.

Q: Exercise - physical exercise - is still the best.

A: I see a consequence that becomes motivating. Even people with depression respond to exercise. I stopped doing crosswords. I will do

Scrabble but that's because I enjoy it. I like doing things in the community that are social.

Q: Your book deals with all the research and also asks a basic question:

Do you want to know you're apt to get Alzheimer's. What do you conclude?

A: For some people, knowing is its own reward. They can have genetic counselors and plan for the future. Others don't want to know until they have to. We're going to be OK. Interventions today are much more targeted.

People are attacking this problem pharmaceutically.

You know, only 1 out of 7 people are apt to get Alzheimer's. That's not great but it could be worse. Now if we can find a drug or if exercise can slow that down by five years, the number looks a lot different. The future is good.