Questions about memory, using weights
Q: When should a person start worrying about becoming more forgetful? How can you tell if it’s normal memory loss, or something more serious?
A: For many of us, memory blips become more common as we get older. Our brains form fewer connections now, so our memory is not as strong as it used to be.
As we get older, the processing speed of our brain slows down, so we can’t recall information as quickly as we used to. It may take us longer to remember basic information, such as names, dates, or where we left our car keys.
Memory lapses are unsettling, but they don’t necessarily herald impending dementia. The key is in how often these slips occur. You really need to figure out the pattern.
Is it happening several times a week, or is it happening once or twice a month? Is it a change compared to five or 10 years ago? Is it getting gradually worse?
Forgetfulness can be a normal part of growing older. Memory lapses can also stem from several other conditions, including lack of sleep, stress, medications, alcohol or depression.
Any of these conditions can be treated. For example, you can adjust your sleep schedule, try deep breathing or other techniques to reduce stress, change the dose or type of medications you take, cut down on your drinking, or get treated for depression.
Don’t be alarmed by everyday forgetfulness. The time to call your doctor is when you have more persistent or worsening memory loss that’s interfering with your daily activities and routine and starting to affect your daily functioning.
There are three things you can start doing right now to preserve mental function as you age:
- Exercise. Exercise promotes the release of a powerful molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which repairs brain cells, strengthens their connections, promotes new brain cell growth, and enlarges the size of your hippocampus (a part of the brain involved in the storage and retrieval of memories).
Exercise also increases blood flow to your brain and may protect the brain’s system for flushing out toxins.
- Eat a healthy diet. To protect yourself, generally avoid processed and sugary foods and animal fats (other than from fish). They’re associated with poor cardiovascular health.
Opt instead for a Mediterranean-style diet, which is tied to lower risks for cardiovascular disease and cognitive decline. The diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil and fish, as well as moderate amounts of poultry and dairy.
- Get more sleep. We should aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night to help the body rest and the brain conduct important duties. During sleep, the brain’s glymphatic system flushes out waste produced by the brain, including Alzheimer’s disease-related toxins (such as the protein amyloid-beta).
Q: For a person in his 70s who never did resistance training, what’s a good way to get started?
A: Old-fashioned resistance training — lifting heavy weights multiple times — is the best way for people to slow and even reverse age-related muscle loss, known as sarcopenia. It can also increase your strength, protect against falls, and help you live a more independent life.
Resistance training (also known as strength training) consists of doing upper- and lower-body exercises using free weights (like dumbbells, kettlebells or barbells), weight machines, resistance bands, or just your own body weight.
The constant challenge with resistance training is finding the Goldilocks zone between doing too little and too much. You want to stress your muscles enough to see and feel a difference, but not overdo it, where you risk injury.
Ideally, see a certified trainer before you embark on a resistance training program. It’s worth the time and investment, as he or she can create a routine unique to your needs, and more importantly, teach you proper form and speed.
However, if you want to get started on your own, here are some resistance exercise basics:
Type: Do one to two multi-joint exercises per major muscle group. There are six main muscle groups: chest, back, arms, shoulders, legs and calves. So, this means doing six to 12 exercises per workout.
Weight: Use enough weight or resistance so you can perform 10 repetitions (or reps) with good form. The last two should be tough to complete. Alternatively, start with 70% of your maximum one rep. Maximum one rep is the amount of weight you can safely lift just once.
Reps: Do anywhere from six to 12 reps per exercise. I suggest beginning with 10 to 12 reps. Then as you progress, you should aim for six to eight reps with increased weight or resistance.
Sets: Start with two sets per exercise. Always rest in between each set for 30 to 60 seconds to help you recover.
Frequency: More is not always better when it comes to resistance training. Two or three workouts per week can produce the desired muscle tone and strength.
Keep in mind that it can take time to see increased muscle mass and feel stronger. Consistency is essential, but if you don’t notice changes after about eight weeks, you are not training hard enough and need to mix up your routine by increasing your weight or sets or the number of exercises.
Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, visit health.harvard.edu.
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