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AARP The Magazine

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

Physical exercise and brain size

I head into the next exam room, where a stationary bike is waiting for me. A stress test will assess how well my cardiovascular system is feeding my brain.

Cycling has never ranked high on my list of favorite activities, and I like it even less when I've got EKG leads taped to my chest. No matter how encouraging exercise physiologist Michelle Barnett is — and she's very encouraging — her words don't distract me from the fact that she's wearing a cute T-shirt over her toned abs while I lack both T-shirt and six-pack.

Still, the workout gets my heart pumping a little faster, and that's a good thing. According to psychologist Arthur Kramer, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, physical exercise is one of the best gifts you can give your brain.

A few years ago, Kramer persuaded a group of older adults to embark on a relatively modest exercise regimen, in which they walked three days a week for 45 minutes each time. "Nobody won any medals," Kramer says, but the walkers showed a substantial improvement on cognitive tests at the end of the yearlong study. What's more, brain scans displayed a 2 percent increase in hippocampus size.

Since the hippocampus generally shrinks about half a percent a year after age 50, his subjects weren't just slowing the march of time but reversing it. "If we had a drug that did that, everyone would pay a lot of money for it," Kramer says. "But this doesn't cost a thing. Just take a walk."

Optimal blood flow is key

After finishing my stress test and getting my shirt back, I head down the hallway to meet with a radiology technician. I lie on an exam table as he waves an ultrasound wand up and down the side of my neck. 

A rhythmic whooshing noise fills the room. It's the sound of the blood in one of my carotid arteries, the main feeders for my brain. Plaque can clog these arteries, just as it can stop up the arteries that go to the heart. And just like a clot in a coronary artery can cause a heart attack, one in a carotid can cause a stroke. Even a partial closure can leave your brain operating at reduced power. So the technician is checking how well things are moving — and I'm happy to learn that my blood is flowing freely.

Later I also get good news after an EEG, a test that entails covering my scalp with goop and wearing an electrode-studded skullcap that traces my brain waves.

Meditation for relaxation

By now I'm ready for a break, and luckily it's time for Taking It Easy 101. At the institute nearly everyone learns mindful meditation with brain fitness director Eylem Sahin.

Research offers tantalizing suggestions that the practice may be good for memory. It's simple, though not necessarily easy: All it takes is a relaxed awareness of one's thoughts, sensations and emotions. Sahin helps me perfect my belly breathing as I picture myself in a remote meadow and concentrate on progressively relaxing my body, from my feet to my eyebrows. Sahin says I'm learning to simultaneously focus and relax, but I feel as if I'm giving my mind a nice, relaxing bath. Aah …

And with that, my day is done.

Next page: Memory can be quirky. »

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