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Gary Small, MD, is the Director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of The Memory Bible. In an interview he did with The WAM Weekly, Dr. Small explains what we all can do for our brains today to live better for longer.

WAM: Your mission at the UCLA Longevity Center is to help us all become more adept at “living better longer.” What are the major elements you address to ensure our brains help us accomplish that?

Dr. Small: The UCLA Longevity Center offers several online programs available to the public to help people live better, longer. Our healthy aging lifestyle classes teach people about practical strategies for protecting brain health and boosting memory through physical exercise, a brain healthy diet, stress management, and mental stimulation. Our team’s research has shown that these strategies can improve cognitive abilities within two weeks, and those benefits can be sustained for years – provided people maintain their healthy aging lifestyle habits. Our memory training and brain boot camp programs help participants learn easy methods for compensating for everyday memory challenges and forgetfulness. More information is available on our website at www.longevity.ucla.edu.

WAM: Is a change in routine that includes making time for leisure and play important for our brain health, and if so why?

Dr. Small: Variety and change keeps the brain’s neural circuits healthy and strong. We are all naturally drawn to novelty – it satisfies our curiosity and our desire to attain new information. When we spend time engaged in new and stimulating mental tasks, the brain regions controlling those tasks will become stronger. If you brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand, it will feel awkward at first, but with practice, you will strengthen the neural circuits controlling this new activity. As a result, you’ll fortify your brain cells and become an ambidextrous tooth brusher. Epidemiological studies show that people who engage in novel mental activities, lifelong learning, and other forms of brain stimulation have a lower risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

WAM: What’s the difference between a Brain Boosting exercise and Memory Training—and should we be doing both?

Dr. Small: Any mental challenge can be a brain boosting exercise. Activities like solving crossword puzzles, playing board games, reading novels, or simply having a stimulating conversation have been shown to strengthen the neurons in the brain and lower risk of developing dementia in the future. However, it’s important to train, but not strain your brain. In other words, find specific games and mental activities that challenge you but don’t overwhelm you. Memory training, by contrast, actually teaches you specific strategies to help compensate for common forms of age-related memory complaints. I recommend that people experiencing memory challenges make an effort to engage in both approaches.

WAM: Do you have suggestions for families to do over the summer that are brain-healthy and engage our brains without being work related?

Dr. Small: The best brain healthy exercises for families should be challenging, but also fun for everyone – regardless of their age or cognitive abilities. Board games, charades, cards, and even hide and seek can offer wonderful opportunities to stop focusing on work tasks and connect with the people we love. I particularly like activities that combine physical exercise with a mental challenge. Basketball, badminton, touch football, or a vigorous game of ping-pong are great ways to stimulate the brain’s neural circuits while also fortifying brain health from the physical exercise. Getting our hearts to pump oxygen and nutrients to our brain cells makes them stronger. Research shows that just 20 minutes of daily brisk walking will lower the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

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