Fight Memory Loss by Watching Your Waistline

While a definitive link between body weight and memory loss has not yet been established, a number of studies suggest that controlling your weight may be a good way to protect your brain.

A high body mass index (BMI, a ratio of height to weight that is used to measure obesity), is associated with poorer mental skills in older adults, research suggests.

Experts aren’t sure what causes the association between weight and memory loss, but it may have to do with genetic factors. More than 33 percent of Americans carry a variant of a common gene that both increases their likelihood for obesity and makes them more vulnerable to AD. Regular exercise and a low-fat diet can minimize the effects of this gene variant.

Other research suggests that the effects of poor glucose tolerance—a common complication of obesity—may cause atrophy of the brain’s learning and memory centers in obese individuals. Low brain levels of the hormone leptin, which is associated with obesity, also may be responsible for learning and memory problems. The good news is that losing weight—whether by diet and exercise, or bariatric surgery for those who need it—may help fight memory loss.

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A complicating factor in the obesity-dementia connection is the contradictory finding that excess weight may actually have a protective effect in some people. Several investigations have linked being underweight later in life with an increased risk for dementia.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that seniors with the lowest BMIs have more deposits of beta-amyloid in their brains, especially if they have the ApoE4 gene variant, which raises the risk for AD. In the elderly, a very low BMI can indicate frailty, which is known to be associated with AD. Although this finding warrants further study, it underscores the idea that being underweight as you age can be just as problematic as being overweight.

Get Plenty of Exercise to Combat Memory Loss

Staying active works in conjunction with diet to keep your weight in check. Exercise is known to protect against conditions linked to Alzheimer’s, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. It may help directly ward off cognitive decline.

The ideal exercise program for both health promotion and dementia prevention combines aerobics and strength training with flexibility and balance exercises, like tai chi and yoga. Regular aerobic workouts enhance cognitive abilities by increasing the flow of oxygen-rich blood to areas of the brain responsible for learning and memory, promoting the growth of new connections between brain cells, and providing mental stimulation. Any aerobic physical exercise, from dancing to gardening, can improve brain function and lower your Alzheimer’s risk, as long as it gets your heart pumping.

Strength training—such as lifting light weights or working out with resistance bands—may improve executive function, memory, and working memory. Researchers have found that older adults who have strong muscles may be less likely to develop AD than people who are physically weak.

The earlier you start getting fit, the better. Staying active in midlife correlates with better cognition and a lower risk of developing dementia later in life. If you’ve been inactive for a while, see your doctor about designing an exercise program that’s safe for you. Aim for 30 minutes or more of walking, swimming, or other forms of aerobic exercise at least five days a week.

Vary your activities to stay engaged and avoid boredom. Remember that even household chores and gardening count as exercise. Include exercises to improve balance and coordination. At least twice a week, strength train to boost energy, increase muscle mass, and help you burn fat faster. For maximum benefit, combine diet with exercise and brain training. This multifaceted approach is good for overall health and may help slow cognitive decline in older adults at risk for dementia.

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