Mind Matters -- October 2003
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Brain Fitness

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      I notice that you have written different articles about depression and exercise, mental wellness, and dementia. Could you tell me in one article about some of the significant factors involved in keeping our brains healthy? Signed -- Wanting to Be My Best.

    Dear Wanting to Be Your Best:

      Thank you for writing! You are right. I have scattered bits and pieces of information about brain fitness among several articles. Let's fix that.

      The two most important things to keep in mind about our brains are (1) even though our baseline brain fitness is determined significantly by our biology, we can do many things to help maximize our brain's health, and (2) except for a few degenerative brain diseases, the brain is almost always "developing" and is capable of creating new cells and new circuits at any age.

      Several reports about how physical exercise benefits the brain can be found at the Society for Neuroscience (www.sfn.org). Research indicates that moderate physical exercise significantly increases BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the brains of rats. BDNF has a critical role in the maintenance of the human brain, especially of a key part of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is implicated in clinical depression, and its health is crucial to learning and memory.

      Prefrontal brain function has been shown to be better in joggers than in non-joggers. That improved performance disappeared when joggers stopped training, which suggests that ongoing exercise is important. Related studies showed that exercise benefits the metabolism of blood sugar, making glucose more available to the brain, which depends on blood sugar for almost all of its energy.

      When it comes to exercising the brain, research has shown that the old adage "use it or lose it" is also true about our brains. One study tracked 469 people over age 75 for an average of 5.1 years. Dementia developed in 124 people. However, the risk of dementia was lower for those who frequently danced, played board games, played musical instruments, or did crossword puzzles, by 76%, 74%, 69%, and 38%, respectively. The original report is in The New England Journal of Medicine (June 19, 2003), and the new motto might be "play bridge, not bingo."

      Diets rich in omega-3 fats and antioxidants, staying trim, and occasionally fasting for a day, have been shown to be good for the brain. Of four antioxidants investigated in a Rotterdam study, high intake of dietary vitamin E had the strongest association with reduced risk of dementia. Beta-carotene and vitamin C had smaller effects. A July 2003 report concluded that women who were overweight at ages 70, 74, and 79 were more likely to develop dementia by age 88. A recent study by the National Institute on Aging indicated mice that fasted every other day as compared to mice who didn't were more resistant to diabetes and to a condition similar to human Alzheimer's Disease and they had much higher BDNF levels.

      I think frequent but moderate exercise, moderate intake of omega-3 fats and antioxidants, an occasional day-off from eating (if you don't have blood sugar problems), maintaining normal weight, and frequently dancing, playing bridge or a musical instrument or doing crossword puzzles are good bets for boosting brain fitness. For more information, please visit Aging Brain Web Page. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. Read our Disclaimer.

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      Have a great day!

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