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Brain Power

Our aging population has shed a light on the costs of neurodegenerative disease to families and our communities. Whether we have watched loved ones struggle, or find ourselves worrying every time we can't find the keys, loss of brain function through degenerative disease becomes an increasingly frightening hazard as we age. Fortunately, new research offers hope, and it's simpler than you may have thought! The answer ... exercise and diet! Many studies have tested the idea of 'enriched environments' to combat loss of brain function in mice. Last year, researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois decided to question how much was gained by these environments. The results are surprising. Four groups of mice were placed into four different environments. One group lived in an 'enriched environment,' eating nuts, fruits and cheeses, and even flavored waters. Their beds were colorful plastic igloos in one corner of the cage, and they were given colorful, varied toys and activities. A second group had the access to all the same 'perks,' but also had access to small disc-shaped running wheels in their cages. A third group’s had no toys and ate the standard food given to lab mice. The fourth group’s cages had running wheels but no other toys and they were also given a simple diet. All the animals were given a series of cognitive tests at the start of the study, after which they were injected with a substance to allow scientists to track changes in their brain structures. They then lived in their respective homes for several months. Afterward, the mice went through the same cognitive tests and brain tissue was examined. The result? Toys and treats did not improve brain of the mice, but exercise did! Research showed that animals that exercised, irrespective of whether they were in 'enriched environments' or not, had healthier brains and performed significantly better on cognitive tests than the other mice. If they didn’t run, even in a lively and interesting environment, their brainpower showed no improvement. The mice that exercised became smarter. Exercise does not need to be rigorous to show improvement. A major study in 2011 included 120 older men and women who were assigned to walking or stretching programs. The walkers were found to have larger hippocampi -- which fills important roles in the consolidation of information for short-term and long-term memory and spatial navigation -- after a year, while the those in the stretching group lost volume to normal atrophy. The walkers also performed better on cognitive tests. Researchers found that the walkers regained two years or more of hippocampal youth! Take a walk, and after your walk enjoy a great meal with grilled salmon. Studies also found that omega-3 fatty acids can not only halt the production of inflammatory molecules and triglycerides, but can actually restore nerve growth damage. Diet and exercise ... great for body and mind!

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