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Why Exercise Protects Your Memory

Recent research shows that a regular exercise program can help to prevent some of the loss of memory that comes with aging. A part of your brain called the hippocampus is the control station for memories that you store in other parts of the brain. Another brain structure called the prefrontal cortex is the central station that assembles data from other parts of your brain when you want to recall something from your past. Aging causes the brain to shrink and you lose synapses that transmit messages from one nerve to another.

Exercise causes the brain to produce a substance called Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BNDF) that strengthens old synapses and causes new one to grow (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 2007). Researchers used MRIs of their human subjects to show that an exercise program of an hour a day, four days a week for three months caused new neurons to grow in the hippocampus. Several previous studies showed that exercise enlarges the hippocampus in rats and doubles or even triples the rate of the formation of new nerves. However, one way that rats differ from humans is that most of them like to run and need no encouragement to spend several hours a day on a treadmill.

There is also emerging evidence that physical activity may be protective against neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, Parkinson's disease, strokes and spinal cord injuries. If you are not a regular exerciser, check with your doctor and get started.

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Dear Dr. Mirkin: You recommend taking sugar during long exercise; does this apply to me since I am diabetic?

Yes. I am also diabetic; my HBA1C was 7.2 (normal is below 6) and it is now 5 with no medication. Unless I am exercising, I avoid sugar, flour and all other refined carbohydrates. However, when I exercise for more than two hours, I have to take a source of sugar or my muscles run out of their stored sugar supply and I become very tired. This was confirmed in a recent study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (December 2007).

On long bicycle rides, I drink soda and eat granola bars or other foods that contain sugar. I have no adverse effects because the exercising muscles draw sugar rapidly from the bloodstream. However, I wait until I have been exercising for at least half an hour before I start to eat. Taking sugar before starting to exercise, or too early in the ride, raises insulin which causes low blood sugar that makes me tire earlier.

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Dear Dr. Mirkin: Are overweight children more likely to have health problems later in life?

Two studies in the same issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (December 6, 2007) show the probable impact of childhood obesity on heart attack rates. The first study, based on annual height-and-weight measurements in some 275,000 Danish schoolchildren, followed their health after age 25. Researchers found that being overweight in adolescence predicts higher risks for heart attacks in later life. The present high rate of obesity in adolescence is projected to increase the prevalence of obese 35-year-olds in 2020 to a range of 30 to 37 percent in men and 34 to 44 percent in women.

The second study predicts that heart attack rate will increase between 5 percent and 16 percent by 2035, with more than 100,000 excess cases of coronary heart disease attributable to the epidemic of obesity. Obesity in childhood increases risk for coronary heart disease during adult years. Efforts to regulate advertising of junk food, change farm subsidies, and provide funding for decent lunches and regular physical activities at school can help to reverse this trend.

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More recipes for your holiday buffet

Shrimp Curry Salad
Spicy Peanut Dip

You'll find lots of recipes and helpful tips in The Good Food Book - it's FREE

June 25th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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