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Better memory is a walk in the park

As we age and our ability to recall information becomes increasingly difficult, we can feel unsettled. Trying to remember a favorite movie, the author of a book you just finished reading or the name of your new daughter-in-law can be excruciating, especially in a public situation.

As one elder said, trying to remember the name of the pastor of a church he’d attended for more than 40 years, with his pastor in front of him waiting to be introduced, “This business of getting old is no walk in the park.”

But maybe it is. When it comes to maintaining and even improving memory, we often hear about the value of crossword puzzles, Sudoku and various brain-enhancing word games. Lately there’s an emphasis on doing something totally out of one’s comfort zone, such as learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument. But research is converging on the best option of all: physical activity. And aerobic activities such as walking, slowly at first but with increasing briskness, have particular value.

Experts suggest 30 minutes of exercise a day; but you can do it in 10- to 15-minute chunks and achieve the same goals. A timed walk around the interior of your house is one approach. Add a slight incline to any walk for more benefit. Other aerobic possibilities include swimming, biking, dancing — maybe peddling a stationary bike while sitting in your recliner watching “Dancing with the Stars.”

“Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Conditions,” the reference book used in the Living Well program launched at Stanford University by Kate Lorig more than a decade ago, offers a variety of instructive approaches and some particularly good recommendations for exercises to improve flexibility, endurance, strength and balance.

But let’s stay focused on memory. The American Psychological Association talks about different types of memory — “episodic” (What did I have for breakfast?), “source” (Where did I learn about that new movie?) and “flashbulb” (Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001?). In each of those areas, we experience varying degrees of memory decline as we age, although it differs with the individual. Two other areas of memory that decline in all of us are “semantic” (words, facts, concepts) and “procedural” (learning to write cursive).

In all areas where older adults have memory difficulties, aerobic (“with oxygen”) activities seem to help. It encourages better lung function and improves lung capacity, and people often say they think more clearly after exercise. Research at the Center for Brain Health, University of Texas-Dallas, assessed exercise across all age groups and found older adults demonstrate benefits that are “especially astounding.”

Try this simple experiment. Rate your mental clarity on a scale of 1 to 10 — “10” is very clear-headed and “1” is fuzzy cognition. Then take several deep, cleansing breaths — in through your nose and out through your mouth. Slowly. Give yourself another rating. See any change?

Good. Now, bump it up a little. Maybe you could try a walk in the park?

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