News & Perspectives

Brain Longevity: Preventing and Reversing Memory Loss

Whether it's ordinary forgetfulness, "senior moments," or the devastating mental decline of Alzheimer's disease, conventional medicine has little to offer for memory loss. But a new kind of program at the Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation in Tucson may provide benefits within weeks of starting a brain-boosting regimen.

The program is run by Dharma Singh Khalsa, an American Sikh and conventionally trained M.D. from Ohio. Through the years, Dr. Khalsa has served as chief resident at the University of California San Francisco, clinical anesthesiologist at Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and founding director of the chronic pain program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix. In Tucson, Dr. Khalsa integrates nontraditional techniques with mainstream methods to prevent--and even reverse--Alzheimer's disease and other, less serious forms of memory loss. Many of his methods are being adopted at other medical centers as well.

Brain foods
A cornerstone of the program goes back to basics: a sound diet and exercise. Dr. Khalsa reminds people that the brain, like the heart, is an organ that will benefit from a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet. Instead of meat and eggs, for example, choose chicken, tofu, or fish.

Other nutrient-rich, brain-boosting foods Dr. Khalsa recommends are leafy greens (kale, spinach, collards), fruits (peaches, bananas, cantaloupe), and vegetables (tomatoes, asparagus). For a short-term memory jog, try this "brain booster" snack: 1 large tart apple and 1 cup cashew nuts, blended until smooth and chilled. Spread a little on whole wheat crackers, it may, for instance, help you remember what you're reading.

Mental fitness
Dr. Khalsa cites studies showing that aerobic conditioning (the kind you get from walking, swimming, dancing, or tennis) increases blood flow to the brain and may boost brain power. Keeping the brain stimulated through news discussions, crossword puzzles, music, or art is also important.

Another key part of the program involves meditation, yoga, and deep breathing. These mind-body exercises reduce excess levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which Dr. Khalsa likens to battery acid in its long-term effects on the brain. One of his favorite meditation techniques: Repeatedly chant the primal words Sa, Ta, Na, and Ma while slowly touching the thumb, respectively, to the index, middle, ring, and little fingers.

Nutrients for the brain
Various brain-protecting vitamins, herbs, and nutrients are also part of the brain longevity program. Among Dr. Khalsa's recommendations are B vitamins (a B-50 complex, plus up to 1,000 mcg vitamin B12 daily), antioxidants (3,000 mg vitamin C, 400 to 800 IU vitamin E, and 100 mg coenzyme Q10 daily), acetyl-L-carnitine (250 to 500 mg, 2 or 3 times a day), and ginkgo biloba (120 to 240 mg a day). A relatively new product that he says may improve attention, concentration, and short-term memory is phosphatidylserine (100 mg, 1 to 3 times a day). Large-scale studies of these and other nutrients are under way.

Anti-aging drugs and hormones
Dr. Khalsa notes that the few treatments approved by the FDA for Alzheimer's, such as tacrine (Cognex) and donepezil (Aricept), may improve short-term memory but have no effect on long-term progression of the disease; however, he sometimes prescribes these and other medications as part of his program. The hormone melatonin, for example, may improve sleep, although he advises it be taken at a lower dose (0.1 to 0.5 mg a day) than is commonly recommended (3 to 6 mg a day).

Other hormones he sometimes tries under medical supervision are DHEA (if blood tests show levels are low) and pregnenolone (particularly effective for helping people find the right words); both are converted by the body into estrogen, which studies suggest may aid brain activity and delay the onset of Alzheimer's.

Some final advice
Start early for best results. And don't rely on popping a pill: Dr. Khalsa estimates that supplements and drugs account for only about 10% of the overall benefits; diet and exercise, both physical and mental, are responsible for the rest.

For more information:
Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation, 2420 N. Pantano Road, Tucson, AZ 85715; (520) 749-8374; Look for Dr. Khalsa on the PBS television series "Body & Soul: Aging Well" (check local listings).

Further reading:
Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., Brain Longevity (Warner Books, 1997); Barry Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., Memory (Mastermedia, 1995)

Date Published: 11/06/2000
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