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Memory: Is Mine Normal?

I couldn't tell if I was distracted, losing my marbles or both, so I checked into a brain lab to find out. What I learned changed my life

Stress and cognivity

I run through my medical history quickly, since it's short and boring, with one significant exception: When I was in college, I was in a bad car accident — high speed, head-on, no seat belt. I hit my head so violently that when I woke up, I had amnesia. Like a character in a soap opera, I'd forgotten much of the preceding year, and my thinking was slow and scrambled for the next few weeks. I recovered, but I can't help wondering about whether that hard whack on the head has somehow affected my brain.

Fotuhi listens intently as I share my worries, but he doesn't seem all that concerned. If anything, he seems more interested in the less sensational aspects of my health. He asks about my cholesterol levels and wants to know about my exercise routine (atrocious), sleep habits (worse), stress levels (high, but whose aren't?). All very mundane, I think. All very critical, Fotuhi insists.

Learning a new language or just figuring out how to juggle a few balls — it all seems to stimulate your neurons and boost your brainpower.

In recent years, scientists have learned that the brain is an exquisitely sensitive organ, growing and shrinking like a coral reef in response to its environment. A mounting stack of studies suggests that the condition of the body somehow affects the condition of the brain. According to Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of The Alzheimer's Prevention Program, being overweight doubles the risk for Alzheimer's; being obese quadruples it. Diabetes can speed up brain shrinkage, as can high blood pressure.

A wide range of conditions — from sleep apnea to depression — also seems to have an impact on brain health. So does everyday stress. Studies indicate that the stress hormone cortisol can damage the brain's white matter pathways, making it harder for areas to communicate with one another.

Thankfully, there's an upside to the brain's vulnerability: Just as bad habits can impair its functioning, good ones can help it. Several studies, including a 2011 report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that healthy lifestyle choices help create new cells in the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped region of the brain that processes short-term memories and determines which ones get put in long-term storage. "The best remedy for late-life Alzheimer's disease is midlife intervention," Fotuhi tells me as we finish my initial exam. "Baby boomers need to wake up and shake up their lives."

Weight training for the mind

The next part of my evaluation, not surprisingly, is a memory test.

"When I say 'start,' I want you to name as many words as you can that begin with the letter B," instructs Tracy Riloff, the institute's director of cognitive assessment. That turns out to be challenging when you've got only 60 seconds. I can't come up with "boy" or "book," but inexplicably I manage to pull out the words "brusque" and "bile." We move on to other letters and eventually other exercises: I draw shapes from memory, repeat Riloff's stories back to her and sort cards into categories. It all reminds me of the aptitude tests I took in elementary school.

It also makes me feel as if I'm getting a real workout — which is not far from the truth, since research shows that mental exercise can keep your brain in shape. A 2000 study reported that London cabbies plumped up their hippocampi as they learned to navigate the maze of streets in the inner city. Other research has found that medical students bulk up their brains as they cram for exams. Learning a new language or just figuring out how to juggle a few balls — it all seems to stimulate your neurons and boost your brainpower. "If someone told me 20 years ago that the brain is like a muscle, I would have laughed," UCLA's Small says. "But in many ways, it is."

My muscle of a brain is exhausted, so I'm glad that the mental aerobics part of my assessment is over. Unfortunately, it's time for the physical part.

Next page: Physical exercise and brain size. »

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