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  • Patricia Anstett

Exercise and Other Natural Ways to Improve and Retain Memory

Denise Parsons worried she might have Alzheimer’s disease or dementia when she found herself searching for the right words, losing her keys and forgetting why she went downstairs.

It was time to get serious about improving her health, she thought. She switched to buying more natural foods, started seeing a functional medicine physician who specializes in non-drug options, and began taking Memory Health, a patented, non-prescription supplement to improve memory.

Parsons, 62, of Bloomfield Hills, credits the supplement for improvements she’s noticed in herself. “It wasn’t overnight, but my memory improved over a month or two,’’ she said. Her husband, Benedict Ciaramitaro also now takes the pill. “We take it because we don’t want to lose our memory.” She considers the expense worthwhile compared to what they’d spend if one of them entered a dementia facility.

As America ages and more people live longer, millions of older adults look for ways to prevent, stave off or reduce the severity of common diseases of aging, from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, to bone and body aches. Given the side effects or ineffectiveness of some drugs marketed to treat these issues, more older adults are clamoring for effective non-pharmacological options.

Here’s a summary of some of the best advice around for two of the biggest health concerns of older adults, culled from health specialists who work with seniors and research from the recent annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America.

MANAGING CHRONIC PAIN: Far too many older adults turn to medicines to reduce pain when simple options would work without the side effects medicines may have, said Vineta Mitchell, a nurse who specializes in pain management with her Southfield-based company, TLOVE Solutions. “You don’t want to be dependent on a pill; you want to control pain yourself.” If you do use a pain medicine, “use the lowest dose possible,” she said. “Be vigilant about assessing whether the medicine helps. I can’t say that enough. My recommendation is to never take a pill first.”

For chronic pain, she recommends using a heating pad for 20-30 minutes, repeated every two-three hours. “Moist heat works best,” she said. “Get a face cloth. Wet it. Slide it into the sleeve of the heating pad, putting the moist side next to the area you are treating.” Hot showers before exercise also may help, she said. “And by all means, keep moving. The body is designed to move. When you are immobile, we feel pain more.”

IMPROVING MEMORY: Move. Lift. Sit less. Regular physical activity helps promote memory and a healthy brain, research suggests. “Exercise is the key, the more the better,” said Joshua Gills, a postdoctoral fellow at Rutgers University’s Aging & Brain Health Alliance who has studied the connection between exercise and mental awareness. He follows national guidelines which recommend that older adults get:

At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of more vigorous aerobic activity or a combination of each week.

At least two days a week of activities to strengthen muscles, such as lifting weights, work with resistance bands or activities like digging in the garden.

Activities to improve balance, such as standing on one foot or walking backwards.

“The real breakthrough in Alzheimer’s that lifestyle can greatly reduce your risk; exercise, stress reduction and nutrition all work together,’’ says George Perry, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, in a report issued this year. Still unknown is how long-lasting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle will be.

Foods and supplements with vitamin D, the Omega-3 found in cold-water fish like salmon, and the plant-based carotenoids in spinach, kale, broccoli and other foods may also help to maintain brain function, some studies show.

Detroit-area businessman Edward Shehab worked to create a natural supplement to enhance memory and mood, fueled by the moment his mother didn’t recognize him one day at lunch. “It broke my heart. This is a passion project for me.” He obtained two patents to sell his caffeine-free product, Memory Health.

For those with an Alzheimer’s or other dementia diagnosis, non-drug options, such as music and group therapy, are particularly helpful in reducing aggression, agitation, sleep disturbances, wandering and depression, the Alzheimer’s report says. Playing a person’s favorite songs can elicit strong responses from adults who may have shown no interest in communicating. The award-winning film, Alive Inside, demonstrates the effect music has on dementia patients. To buy the film or see a trailer, go to

Duke University’s Associate Professor Eleanor S. McConnell finds similar benefits using group therapy. Weekly group session exercises are adaptable for use by individuals at home, the nursing instructor said. Each week, the group focuses on a topic, such as sports. “It gets people talking but in a way that supports them.’’

People can use props like a football or other visual stimulation to promote conversation. You might have a picture of a scoreboard or a gridiron. “You might say, ‘Joe, tell me about a football game you really enjoyed,’” she said. “If not responsive, you might say, ‘Joe, are you a Michigan Wolverine or a Blue Devil?’ Your job is to engage everybody. We know people with dementia have a hard time when people change the topic all the time. Still unresponsive? You might say, ‘Joe, what are you thinking about?’ The idea is there are no wrong answers. It is a place where people can be with others and say what’s on their mind. When people have dementia, they don’t tolerate people putting them in a pigeon hole. If they start to wander off, it may be they are bored or they don’t understand.”

Patricia Anstett reported for the Detroit Free Press as a medical writer for 22 years, is inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame and named an outstanding alumna of MSU’s College of Communications, Arts and Sciences. She is investigating the financial burden of breast cancer on aging patients and has written a book on breast cancer surgery options.

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