Exercise Your Brain

Completely You: Peace & Wellness: Authentic Self
Are you constantly losing your keys? Forgetting names? Here we explain why you may have "porridge brain" and what you can do about it.
By Tracy Mayor for Completely You

Sure, you know the name of your toddler's red-haired buddy from story hour -- it's Garrett. But his mom's name is . . . Lia? Tina? Terry? And, yes, of course you remembered the candles, ice cream, and paper cups for your daughter's birthday party. Too bad you forgot the cake!

You're not losing your mind or coming down with early Alzheimer's. But a new study suggests you may have a touch of what the Brits affectionately call "porridge brain."

Research from neuroscientists at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia suggests that mothers and involved fathers actually become more perceptive, competitive, efficient and socially aware -- all on behalf of their infants. But, while this increase in motherhood-related cognitive tasks may be great for your child, it's not likely to help you find your car keys any faster. Thankfully, a leading memory expert says there's plenty you can do to whip your cerebral cortex back into shape, even with a baby bouncing on one hip.

Gary Small, MD, Director of the UCLA Center on Aging, says that in his practice, he often sees women in their thirties worried that they're losing their memory. "They're not even close to developing Alzheimer's," Small says. "There are a lot of things that contribute to `mommy brain,' but there are a lot of things people can do to improve their memories."

Small's solution, outlined in his most recent book, The Memory Prescription: Dr. Gary Small's 14-Day Plan to Keep Your Brain and Body Young (Digital), targets four key areas to brain fitness: healthy diet, physical conditioning, stress reduction, and memory training. New moms, he admits, are very likely to be deficient in many of those areas -- sleep-deprived, eating strange meals at odd hours, and too tired and baby-bound to exercise.

Small says simple steps, like adding memory-boosting foods like almonds and raisins to your diet, can help moms get back on the brain track. Similarly, regular physical exercise offers a double brain benefit -- it increases blood to the brain and boosts circulation of endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemical. And if you feel good, you are less apt to be distracted and able to think more clearly.

Small likes to suggest that his patients take a daily walk with a friend or spouse, which both fulfills that exercise requirement and also helps in another key area, stress reduction. Because chronic stress impairs memory ability and even shrinks memory centers, the brain benefits greatly from daily stress reduction activities like meditation or socializing with friends or family.

On the memory-training front, Small suggests making mental pictures to help you remember names, appointments and other key data in your day-to-day life. If you have three errands to run before your child's morning nap, for example, don't just mutter "dry cleaners, post office, grocery store" as you load her into the car seat. Instead, he suggests, make a mental picture: imagine, say, a mailman (post office) in diapers (grocery store) with a slew of clothes hangers slung over his shoulder (dry cleaners).

Not only will this help you remember your chores, it might give you a laugh as well. And that, says Small, might be the best memory medicine of all. "A positive outlook -- seeing the cup as half-full -- is the key to a long and healthy life."

Tracy Mayor writes frequently on parenting and cultural topics. She lives north of Boston with her husband and two sons.

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