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Use It Or Lose It - The Memory Challenge
Written By : Dee Cascio 
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How often do you have a thought and, before you know it, it's gone? Do you enter a room to get something and, all of a sudden, realize you are standing there looking for who-knows-what? Sometimes I have to go back to where I started to remember what I was looking for. Do you find yourself forgetting where you put your house or car keys? This always seems to happen when you're in a hurry to go somewhere. The stress of the situation can block memory even more. These temporary memory challenges are not unusual as we age. However, there is no research that indicates that these lapses will eventually progress to dementia.

Research on Cognition
Due to medical research and advancements in health care, men and women are now living an average of 75 years, which is up from 47 years in 1900. Brain research is on the rise, especially in the last 10 years, because of the increase in our lifespans. Part of this movement to study the brain, how it functions and how it keeps its plasticity viable is driven by the large number of baby boomers. Even with the downturn in the economy, 78 million baby boomers began the exodus from their current careers into retirement several years ago. Still others of us are not ready to stop working yet, so we are considering other options. As boomers look for retirement careers, some worry that they won't be able to keep up with younger employees and others may not even try. Many boomers may slip into complacency blaming their memory challenges on age.

New research, reported in the USC Health Magazine cover story by Monika Guttman, involves the use of MRI and PET scans along with other neuroscience technology. This research has revealed that plaque and tangles, considered in the past to be the cause of different forms of dementia, may not be the cause after all. Another study in the Journal of Neurophysiology examined the brains of the elderly that were functioning well until death. They were found to have large amounts of plaque and tangles but showed no signs of Alzheimer's symptoms. New research suggests that Alzheimer's may be more connected to an inflammatory process. This process seems to be caused by chemical changes in the brain such as a decrease of dopamine, which is a brain chemical associated with pleasure and reward. These chemical processes slow metabolism in regions of the brain associated with cognition. Most symptoms occur at different paces for all of us, and it is said that genetics also plays a key role in the way our brain ages.

Recently, a report by US News and World Report observed a number of seniors between the ages of 66 and 103. These mature adults gathered together as a group on a regular basis to sing and perform in public. As a part of this activity, they learned new lyrics, read music and socialized with each other. Compared to a control group of people who did not participate in this communal activity, the singing group required less medication, was less depressed, experienced fewer falls and felt more fulfilled and engaged. Based on their comments, this experience also seemed to improve the quality of their overall health and morale.

What interested me the most in reading about memory challenges in retirement was that new research has identified factors in brain aging. These studies indicate that the rate of change may be hastened or slowed by lifestyle factors such as blood pressure levels, blood sugar levels, weight, and the extent that we keep our minds agile by learning new and different activities and skills. Growth in cognition has been found to broaden synapse connections between neurons, making already-established cognition patterns stronger.

Ways To Continue To Use It So We Won't Lose It
Our generation has been one of boundless energy, advanced education, and high expectations throughout our lives. As a group, we want and expect a high quality of life all the way through retirement until death. However, to make sure this becomes a reality, we all need to keep our minds sharp by continuing to learn new things, staying engaged with others and trying different activities. There are certain behaviors that we all need to adopt to accomplish this quality of life in retirement. It's never too late so here are some suggestions that have come out of recent brain research:

1. Make sure you exercise at least 4 to 5 times a week.
2. Eat a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruits and grains.
3. Learn new activities and take your current skills and activities to a higher level in order to challenge your cognition. Exercise both sides of your brain.
4. Get eight hours of sleep each night as often as possible.
5. Manage hypertension because it tends to speed normal brain shrinkage and loss of mental ability. You can help manage hypertension through regular exercise and by regularly taking your recommended medication.
6. Manage your stress level to reduce a chemical in the body called cortisol. In small amounts, cortisol can actually improve cognition but large amounts wear away the neurons in the brain. Keep your stress under control to alleviate the long-term problems created by too much cortisol. Stress can be reduced through meditation, exercise and building a strong support system around you for healthy aging.

Stay engaged and be physically and mentally active, and you will be making the best of your life for the rest of your life.

Find out more about: retirement
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