Healthy Living

Brain Games in the Vail Valley

It’s a laid-back afternoon at your go-to watering hole after a long, crisp, bluebird day on the mountain. You’re relaxing with friends and a few drinks on the patio just before dusk, regaling each other (and maybe a few amused passerby) with stories of powder days past. There was that one morning nearly a decade ago, just after a massive overnight snowstorm, when the clouds cleared around 8 a.m. and your small group of die-hard regulars managed to catch first chair. You remember every last detail in vivid color — the old-school shaped K2s, the jittery two-person chair, the epic stashes tucked away just off the lift line — when someone laughs, takes a swig and puts you on the spot.

“How does this morning compare?” the listener asks. “Where were you skiing?”
Pause. You remember two, maybe three runs from earlier that morning, but once you and the rest broke off from the traditional warm-up trails, everything is a bit blurry. You recall bits and pieces from just a few hours earlier, and that’s about it. Did you meet that family from your hometown on Chair 2? Or was it Chair 3? And what about the gap between lunch and après beers?

For decades, neurologists have been trying to figure out exactly why and how certain memories just don’t seem to stick. There are dozens of factors — blood pressure, diet, genetics, even exercise — but, more often than not, just about everyone begins to lose middle memory, or recent memory, with time and age.

“This is the memory area that’s most affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s,” says Marc Treihaft, a clinical professor of neurology with the University of Colorado-Denver. “It’s the one that goes, even when long-term is intact. You’ll have patients who can tell you anything they did years ago, but they might not be able to tell you what they had for breakfast.”

Alzheimer’s is on the extreme end of the memory-loss spectrum, but most people run into a mental roadblock with middle memory. It’s not a cause for alarm, exactly, but it’s a reminder of just how fragile — and important — memory can be.

The powder day story is a prime example: you shrug, admit you can’t really remember the morning, other than all that luscious snow, then dive back into the memory from years ago. But you still wonder why it was such a struggle when you otherwise feel strong, sharp and healthy.
“When people have memory problems, they want to treat it but might not know the cause,” says Deborah Wiancek, a naturopathic doctor and owner of Riverwalk Natural Health Clinic in Edwards. “That’s where you really need to start before getting into help.”

Defend your memory

Don’t wait until your memory starts slipping to protect your brain. Experts recommend dozens of remedies for memory loss, and one of the easiest is to tweak your diet. Here are a few suggested foods for better brain health from Deborah Wiancek, a naturopathic doctor at Riverwalk Natural Health Clinic in Edwards.

Eat more “superfood” berries.

The term “superfood” has been chic for several years, but there’s truth behind the trend. Fruits like blueberries, raspberries and pomegranates are shown to reduce inflammation, Wiancek says, which is a major factor for many brain issues.

Find a good multivitamin and use it daily.

Vitamins are hard to come by these days, Wiancek says. Soils have been depleted of many essential vitamins and minerals, and modern produce doesn’t pack the punch it once did. The best multivitamins have folic acid, B12 and other B vitamins, all proven to boost brain and nervous system functions.

Take fish oil.

Fish oil is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, an invaluable brain defender. The body doesn’t produce Omega-3s naturally, but the essential fatty acids have been proven to help with memory, concentration, inflammation and even Alzheimer’s disease. Look for a pharmaceutical-grade oil or capsule, with the recommended daily dosage of EPA (1,000 milligrams) and DHA (600-800 milligrams).

Try the Mediterranean diet.

There’s one thing berries, fish and vitamin-rich produce all have in common: they’re staples of the Mediterranean diet. The brain is roughly 60-percent fat, and foods like fish, poultry, lamb, olive oil and nuts are loaded with the healthy variety. Wiancek suggests eating wild fish (farm-raised species can be rife with chemicals) and organic, hormone-free poultry and lamb. Also be careful with portions — drenching a salad in olive oil defeats the purpose.

Know your herbs.

Like vitamins and minerals, certain herbs can patch up deficiencies across the brain. Ginko is a preferred alternative to caffeine for studying and concentration, and the Indian herb bacopa can boost overall brain health.

Know your brain

Memory, of course, lives in the brain. It’s stored all across the body’s most important fatty organ, including the cerebral cortex (aka the 90-percent of the brain humans supposedly don’t use, according to pop science). But the majority of memory functions are controlled by the hippocampus. It’s a small and elongated set of ridges on the bottom of the brain, also home to emotion and, oddly enough, nervous system functions like breathing, heartbeat and digestion.

Again, neurologists are still unlocking the mysteries of the hippocampus, from how it stores middle memory to exactly why it controls vital functions. But one thing is for certain: it’s the region most affected by debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s, dementia and encephalitis, a rare disorder that causes inflammation across the brain. Unlike many other brain conditions, encephalitis is more common in children and less common in adults.

“No one really knows why there’s a predilection for that area (the hippocampus), but it’s the first one to go,” Treihaft says. “When you look at an MRI, you’ll see changes and impacts on the area. Most degenerative changes take place there. If we knew why, it would be Nobel Prize material.”

While the intricacies of memory are still a mystery, experts have a firm grasp on the basics and how they interact. In general, Treihaft says there are three types of memory: immediate (or short-term), middle/recent and long-term. All three are relatively straightforward, and all three rely on a healthy brain to function at their peak. And brain health is almost completely up to you.

“It’s like your muscles — you use it or you lose it,” Wiancek says. “As you get older, try to do puzzles, try to learn a new skill or language, get into problem solving and memory games — just anything to engage your brain.”

From young to old

Like all brain functions, memory is affected by everything we encounter on a day-to-day basis. Age has an inescapable impact on memory, just like bones and muscles and ligaments, but many other factors can be easily avoided, or at least kept in check.

First comes the circulatory system. Conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure both impact the hippocampus, Treihaft says, along with diseases like herpes. People of all ages are susceptible to circulatory issues, particularly if their diet is poor.

Diet has an enormous impact on brain function. The brain is the fattiest organ in the body, which means it demands a rich and constant supply of minerals, nutrients and essential fatty oils, like Omega-3s.
For naturopathic doctors like Wiancek, inflammation is the root of many health issues, including memory loss. A steady regimen of lean proteins like fish, minerals like magnesium and antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E) all reduce inflammation, she says, while protecting and replenishing the brain.

Then there’s vitamin D, another anti-inflammatory with memory-boosting qualities. It comes from direct sunlight, but even outdoor junkies like ski instructors and ski patrollers are usually deficient.

Wiancek suggests just 15 to 20 minutes daily in the sun, with no sunscreen or other protection to block the rays (sunscreen can hamper vitamin D efficacy).

For alpine athletes, brain injuries are a major concern. Concussions and even small knocks can severely impact memory over time, both Treihaft and Wiancek say, especially when
“A lot of people up here are athletic, and that’s why it’s so important to wear a helmet on a bike or when playing sports,” Wiancek says. “Those head injuries can lead to memory loss, and some people never get that back.”

The memory workout

Beyond diet, another routine is proven to protect and preserve memory: exercise. It begins with mental exercises — think crosswords, Sudokus and other simple puzzles that challenge and excite the brain.
“People should try to maintain cognitive exercises,” Treihaft says. “There are plenty of programs online to increase cognitive use, but a very simple way to do that is with pen and paper, with a crossword puzzle. Those are very effective.”

Then comes physical activity. Traditional exercises like running and stretching are important at any age, but Treihaft says it’s even more necessary with age. As the body gets stronger, so does the brain, and exercise doesn’t have to be regimented. It can be nearly anything: hiking, dance classes, even a social book club.

“Physical activity is one of the best things you can do to try and prevent Alzheimer’s and dementia and many other brain conditions,” Wiancek says. “It helps lower inflammation, improves circulation, reduces stress — all of those factors can improve memory. Up here that’s not usually the issue, but it’s good to keep with a regular exercise regimen.”

And who knows? It might even get you in top shape for the next (hopefully) unforgettable powder day.