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Aging: Remember physical activity and exercise

"Remember when ..."

I've been using that phrase a lot lately. I seem able to recall, with a clarity that surprises me, events of my childhood — or activities my children or step-children were involved in when they were young. If one of my granddaughters asks, "Tell me a story about my dad when he was a little boy," I'm absolutely ready. But ... I forgot to close the door of the freezer yesterday and I misplaced (make that completely forgot) a bill I was to pay by a specific date (aren't they all). And this — I get occasionally worried I'm forgetting more than I'm remembering.

I'm attracted to articles with titles like "How to Sharpen Your Memory Now" (Consumer Reports, May, 2014) and "What is Normal Aging?" The latter is actually a webinar presented by a highly credible national organization. If that interests you, I could save you a seat.

There's an industry around aging cognition. It used to be centered on supplements and memory-enhancing computer games. But lately, research suggests you get more benefit from increasing daily physical activity and exercise.

Consumer Reports on Health has a nicely-packaged article on the topic of memory and aging, although I don't think it goes far enough in considering the potentially powerful influence of aerobic exercise. By the way, "aerobic" means "with oxygen" and refers to things such as swimming, running, bicycling and walking.

There's a 2012 study indicating people with Alzheimer's disease who walked a mere two hours weekly for a year improved their thinking skills. It makes me wonder if they walked an hour or two every day what would have happened. Most researchers say there's a clear relationship between "physical activity and reduced cognitive decline." Remember that.

I've long subscribed to Consumer Reports on Health — in fact, I have most of their issues in a carefully-filed box somewhere. Where is that box, anyway?

I trust the information it provides. That said, the ideas espoused in the most-recent article on memory were, for the most part, the same ones present in publications put forth a decade ago. Information about the medications available for people with already-diagnosed dementia — the ones that, by most reports, don't work very well — and the possible importance of the Mediterranean diet have been around for a long time. There was, of course, the obligatory reference to the role of word games and crossword puzzles. Other than the greater importance of exercise, not much has changed on the aging-memory front. It is sad and it is true.

So — let's go back to the beginning. When to worry?

The Alzheimer's Association website www.alz.org contains excellent reference information on this topic. But I suggest this; if you're doing occasional forgetting — no worries. It goes with the territory. If you forget your husband's name — that's another story.

If you occasionally don't track where you're going as well as you think you should, or you misplace things frequently, maybe you just need better systems. If you put your keys in the freezer, repeatedly — that might be a little different.

This is most important. Don't be hard on yourself. After all, you have a lifetime of things to recall.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.