Memory Loss Isn't Inevitable
“Just because your brain can’t hop on a treadmill doesn’t mean it can’t exercise,” said Dr. Majid Fotuhi, chief medical officer of the NeurExpand Brain Center, on the Howard County General Hospital campus. The Center, which Fotuhi heads, will treat “anyone who has concerns about memory and brain functions,” he said. “Our memory makes us who we are. It shapes the kind of life we live.”
Fotuhi, a Baltimore-based neurologist, is fast becoming recognized by experts, from Dr. Mehmet Oz to RealAge author Dr. Michael Roizen, as being on the cutting edge of treating brain and memory problems.
“What this Center is designed to do is to focus on what you can do to make your brain stronger and improve your memory,” said David Abramson, who helped put together the new company. He said that he sees a significant business opportunity among the millions of aging baby boomers concerned about their brain functions.
Whereas memory specialists have long concentrated on the physiological elements of the brain, the Centers will move to improve the brain’s functioning by treating the lifestyle — eating, sleeping, exercising — of the individual to whom the brain belongs.
“Slowing of memory and memory loss is a common occurrence as we age,” said Fotuhi, a Harvard Medical School graduate who got his Ph.D. in neurology from Johns Hopkins University. “But it doesn’t have to happen,” he said. “Through physical and mental activities, people can keep their brain and memory in good shape and ward off Alzheimer’s.”
A recent article in AARP Magazine noted that “a mounting stack of studies suggests that the condition of the body somehow affects the condition of the brain…Being obese quadruples the risk of Alzheimer’s. Diabetes can speed up brain shrinkage, as can high blood pressure,” as well as sleep apnea, depression and everyday stress.
Depression, which used to be treated almost exclusively by psychiatrists going into mental histories and prescribing drugs, can now be greatly relieved, according to mental health specialists, through a change in lifestyle — especially increased exercise. And Fotuhi said not only could memory loss be averted, it could also improve through a 12-week, individualized program devised at the center and meant to grow the brain.
“The best remedy for late-life Alzheimer’s disease is mid-life intervention,” he said.
FIGHTING BRAIN SHRINKAGE
Treatment at the Center aims to expand the hippocampus, the portion of the brain deep within the temporal lobes that controls short-term memory, and determines which remembrances are stored long-term. It’s the hippocampus that “makes you, you.” said the 51-year-old Fotuhi.
It is also the part of the brain that shrinks with age more than any other. “When you get older, the hippocampus has a tendency to shrink, usually .5 percent each year after 50, which would mean shrinkage of 10 percent in 20 years,” said Fotuhi.
And the size of your hippocampus matters. “Changes in its size bring noticeable changes in a person’s memory and cognitive function,” he said. When it comes to peak brain performance, bigger is undeniably better.
But can natural shrinkage with age be reversed? Yes, Fotuhi said.
He pointed to research published a few years ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which one group of seniors did stretching exercises, while another group walked 45 minutes four days a week, both for a year.
MRIs showed that while areas of the hippocampus in the stretchers shrank by about 1.5 percent during that period, those of the walkers increased by about 2 percent, “effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by 1 to 2 years,” the researchers said.
Furthermore, the increased brain volume was associated with improved memory function and oxygen consumption in the walkers compared with the stretchers.
In a book published in 2008, Fotuhi suggested that a great workout for the brain would be doing the New York Times crossword puzzle daily. He has also recommended that older adults put on their dancing shoes. Dancing is the perfect activity to keep the brain young, Fotuhi said. He told CNN that he began ballroom dancing when he was a student at Harvard Medical School, and that he and his wife have mastered the Tango.
Dancing, crossword puzzles and other lifestyle changes may sound simple, but they’re based on sound science, Roizen said in an interview.
“I think that what Dr. Fotuhi is recommending is something that helps you expand your current brain power. Whether exercise or memory games, his treatment is at the forefront of medicine,” said Roizen, who heads the Wellness Clinic at the Cleveland Clinic. and wrote the introduction to Fotuhi’s newest book, published in September.
In the book, Boost Your Brain: The New Art + Science Behind Enhanced Brain Performance, Fotuhi calls the hippocampus “the gateway for new memories and essential for learning; as such, it is a major player in the quest for a bigger, stronger brain.”
Look at the hippocampus as if it were the brain’s librarian, Fotuhi suggests in Boost Your Brain. “It processes all new information and decides what to keep and what to discard....The good stuff — that which the hippocampus deems storage-worthy — is sent to various parts of the cortex for long-term storage.” What is deemed forgettable may be held for a short-time, then is tossed.
In Boost Your Brain, Fotuhi said that “with a greater understanding of how to stave off brain atrophy, it’s likely that just as we have experienced an increase in lifespan over the past century, we will see an increase in our ‘brain span’ — the portion of our lives that we live in peak cognitive condition.
“Memory, creativity, mental agility — our ability to respond quickly or ‘connect the dots’ — all can be improved with a bigger brain,” Fotuhi said.
- The Beacon - November 2013