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SciFest 09: Exercise and diet key to brain health

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 11, 2009 - Memory is key to survival, according to Dr. John Morley, director of the division of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University.

“Whether we are humans or ground squirrels,” he said, “We need to be able to remember or we don't succeed.”

At the most basic level, Morley said, three things are needed to survive: food, sex, and memory.

“First you need to eat. If you don't eat, your species dies. Then, you need to have sex. And after you've had sex, you need to remember how good it was, so you'll eat, so you can have more sex,” he said to laughter from the audience.

Morley's session “Keep your brain in the game,” was part of SciFest 09, the Wednesday-through-Sunday festival at the Science Center with programs that aimed to make science fun and accessible to people.

Those who came to hear Morley included all ages hoping to learn how to stave off cognitive decline and keep their brains healthy well into their later years.

Half of all people born in this century will live to be 100, Morley said. And since nearly half of all people 85 or older have some level of dementia, maintaining cognitive function in older people is becoming more important.


“Physical exercise is probably the single best thing we can do for our minds,” said Morley. He said that nursing home patients who exercised showed an increase in cognition and a decrease in brain atrophy. In fact, exercise slowed the rate of deterioration as much as seven times better than drugs.

He also said exercise decreases agitation among patients with dementia.

“Just exercising gets rid of agitation,” said Morley. “The drugs we give people for agitation in nursing homes kill them.”

And if you exercise at least three times a week in middle age, he said, you are less likely to develop Alzheimer's in the first place.


In addition to exercise, diet is important to brain health.

Morley recommended eating fish, green leafy vegetables, and making sure you get enough vitamin D, especially from sunlight. Moderate drinking is also shown to be protective, he said. But the key is moderation – one drink a day for women and two a day for men.

“Three drinks are very bad,” he warned.


Morley also touted hobbies and education. Activities such as learning a musical instrument, dancing, or playing chess have been shown to improve mood, decrease depression and protect against cognitive decline.

Morley talked about the role of a sudden vision or hearing loss in some unexpected causes of dementia,. “If you can't communicate, it's very hard not to become demented,” he said. Morley explained why he sends his medical students through the nursing home to remove wax from people's ears. “When we do that we improve the mental status by one and a half points,” he said. “That's double what I can do with any available drug on the market.”

In some cases, according to Morley, drugs are not the solution and in fact can have worse outcomes than taking the relatively simple steps of exercise, a healthy diet, and engaging in activities that use the mind and body.

“So get out there and do the tango,” Morley said.

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance science writer based in St. Louis. She has a master's degree in biomedical engineering and works in hospital epidemiology for BJC HealthCare.