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Getting mental, physical exercise may help in warding off dementia

Lauren Neergaard Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Exercise your brain. Nourish it well. And the earlier you start, the better.

That’s the best advice doctors can yet offer to ward off Alzheimer’s disease. There’s no guarantee. But research shows that some fairly simple steps can lower your risk of the deadly dementia.

Also, if Alzheimer’s strikes, people who have followed this advice tend to do better – their brains withstand the attack longer before symptoms become obvious.

The goal: Build up what’s called a “cognitive reserve.”

“Cognitive reserve is not something you’re born with,” Dr. Yaakov Stern of Columbia University told a meeting of Alzheimer’s researchers Monday. “It’s something that changes, and can be modified over time.”

In fact, there’s now enough research backing this theory that the Alzheimer’s Association is offering free classes around the country to teach people – of any age, but especially baby boomers – just how to do it. They call it “maintain your brain.”

“There is tremendous interest in making sure that by the time you’re 80, your brain is there with you,” explains California psychologist Elizabeth Edgerly, who leads the program.

If you’re already 40, don’t despair. What’s the advice?

•Your brain is like a muscle – use it or lose it. Brain scans show that when people use their brains in unusual ways, more blood flows into different neural regions and new connections form.

•A healthy brain isn’t just an intellectual one. Social stimulation is crucial, too. Don’t sit in front of the television. People who are part of a group, whether it’s a church or a book club, age healthier.

•People who have chronic distress – extreme worriers – are twice as likely to develop some form of dementia, research suggests. It’s not clear if someone can reverse a lifetime of worry and anxiety, but studies suggest exercise eases stress effects.

•Getting physical is crucial. Bad memory is linked to heart disease and diabetes because clogged arteries slow blood flow in the brain. A study from Sweden found that obese people are twice as likely to get Alzheimer’s.

•Don’t forget diet. The same foods that are heart-healthy are brain-healthy, so avoid artery-clogging saturated fat and try for omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and nuts.

Getting extra folic acid may help

Taking large amounts of folic acid improved the memory of older adults, Dutch scientists reported Monday in the first study to show a vitamin pill might slow the mental decline of aging.

The research adds to mounting evidence that a diet higher in folate – a B vitamin found in grains and certain dark-colored fruits and vegetables – is important for a variety of diseases. It’s proven to lower women’s risk of devastating birth defects of the brain and spinal cord, and research suggests it helps ward off heart disease and strokes, too.

As people age, some decline in brain function is inevitable. The Dutch study tested whether otherwise healthy people could slow that brain drain by taking double the recommended daily U.S. dose of folic acid – the amount in 2.5 pounds of strawberries.

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