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Shopping your way to brain health

You may not believe this, but it's true. A prominent memory expert, Dr. Marilyn Albert, professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University, has found "shopping is good for the brain."

In 1985, she and her researcher-husband began a 10-year study of 3,000 older adults. They found three things are important for memory to work optimally in the aging adult. First, stay physically active. Second, challenge the brain to constantly make decisions. Third, maintain a positive self-image.

Sounds like shopping to me.

I tested the concept last week by spending a morning and part of an afternoon at our local shopping mall with our soon-to-be-college-freshman granddaughter.

I remember it well. This lovely young woman is quite athletic (known for being the pinch runner on her high school softball team), so we stayed on the move for five hours and 32 minutes. I did not count the number of stores we went in, but a dozen sounds about right. By the time we reached the last one, we also were involved in some strength-training because of the weight of the packages we were carrying.

And every store we entered challenged my brain. There was the ever-present sound of a pounding musical beat and impossible-to-identify songs (I actually tried at first). The racks of densely packed clothes were set up like mazes, and once you entered it became apparent the only way out was through the cash register.

"Grandma, what do you think of this?"

The first time Sydney asked that, I was tempted to respond with, 'Don't you think it's awfully short and a little see-through? But I didn't have to say that because after just a few moments of contemplation, she herself observed, "I don't think my mom would approve." (Let it be noted that I felt a deep, brain-cleansing sigh of relief and admiration for both of them at that moment.)

It was a mind-challenging shopping adventure in part because our 18-year-old granddaughter is a tiny little thing. I had never been shopping with someone who tried on clothes that were size 2. In fact, I had never even known there were so many stores at the mall that had so many clothes that size — pieces of fabric so small it seemed like some of them should be given to you free, like napkins in a restaurant.

My mind, of course, exercised itself as I tried to keep my intended budget in mind. The options for purchase and the big word SALE pulled and pushed us toward endless offerings of clothing that Sydney suggested would be "great for long nights at the library" or "perfect for studying in my dorm room." (This young woman is entering a nursing program, but I really think she has a future in marketing.)

But let's go back to the third point in Dr. Albert's original research findings. "Shopping enhances self-image."

In this case I did not even have to test it with my own purchases. It was indisputably affirmed when one store clerk smiled at me warmly and said, "Such a composed and lovely granddaughter you have."

Yes, I do.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. Email her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, ext. 210.