Memory Maximizers: Anemia & Dementia; Power Nap’s Effect on the Brain

Don’t Let Anemia Increase Your Risk for Dementia

Research published online July 31, 2013 in Neurology suggests that “tired blood,” or anemia—a blood disorder characterized by an insufficiency of red blood cells needed to carry oxygen to body tissues and help carry away carbon dioxide—is associated with a significant increase in the risk for dementia. Researchers found that participants with anemia at the start of an 11-year study were 41 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who did not have anemia. The researchers theorized that anemia may be a marker for poor health in general, which can impair brain functioning, or that low oxygen levels resulting from anemia may starve the brain of oxygen, reducing memory and thinking abilities and damaging neurons. The findings are worrisome, since as many as 25 percent of older adults are thought to have anemia. Symptoms of anemia—which include weakness, rapid heartbeat, numb or cold feet and hands, shortness of breath, pale skin, irritability, and dizziness—call for a medical assessment. Anemia is diagnosed by measuring blood hemoglobin levels, which should be about 12 to 13 grams per deciliter of blood in healthy women, and 13 to 14 grams for men. Treatment focuses on the possible underlying causes of the red-blood-cell shortage, which include a diet deficient in iron, kidney disorders, inflammatory diseases, blood loss, or hereditary disorders such as sickle cell anemia.

To ensure that your diet contains sufficient iron to maintain adequate hemoglobin levels, consume plenty of meat and poultry, eggs, fish, leafy green vegetables, dried fruits, peas and beans, and enriched whole-grain cereals and breads.

Power Nap for a Sharper Brain

Scientists have found that a short snooze during the day may not only counteract fatigue from inadequate sleep at night, but also deliver brain benefits such as improved memory, heightened alertness, reduced levels of stress hormones, greater energy, and sharper mental functioning. A study published recently in Nature Neuroscience compared a group of volunteers who learned a computer game and then took an afternoon nap to another group who learned the game and did not nap. In tests of the volunteers’ computer skills conducted later in the day, the nap takers had 50 percent greater mastery of the game than the non-nappers. Many experts advise against naps longer than 90 minutes or naps taken within three hours of bedtime, as these may interfere with sleep at night. However, dozing in the afternoon between 1 and 4 p.m. when circadian rhythms naturally make you feel sleepy shouldn’t interfere with your night’s rest. Research suggests that a catnap may deliver the following brain benefits, depending upon the length of the nap:

  • 10 to 20 minutes: Leaves people feeling refreshed and increases mental acuity, improves memory, and heightens energy and alertness.
  • 30 to 60 minutes: Boosts memory consolidation, allowing the brain to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory storage. After some feelings of grogginess upon awakening, lengthier naps are associated with enhanced mental acuity that lasts slightly longer than the benefits associated with shorter naps.
  • 90 minutes: Allows the sleeper to experience light, moderate, and slow-wave sleep, as well as rapid-eye-movement sleep, which is associated with dreaming. In addition to the benefits associated with a 30- to 60-minute nap, a 90-minute nap appears to increase creativity, emotional memory, and procedural memory, the often-automatic ability to perform actions involved in basic skills, such as riding a bike.

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