Science + Technology

UCLA Study Finds that Simple Lifestyle Changes May Improve Cognitive Function and Brain Efficiency


A UCLA research study published in the June issue of theAmerican Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that people may be able toimprove their cognitive function and brain efficiency by making simplelifestyle changes such as incorporating memory exercises, healthy eating,physical fitness and stress reduction into their daily lives.

"We've known for several years that diet and exercise canhelp people maintain their physical health and live longer, but maintainingmental health is just as important," said lead investigator, Dr. Gary Small,professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences atthe Semel Institute for Neuroscience and HumanBehavior at UCLA. "The UCLA study is the first to show the impact of memoryexercises and stress reduction used together with a healthy diet and physicalexercise to improve brain and cognitive function."

Researchers found that after just 14 days of followinghealthy lifestyle strategies, study participants' brain metabolism decreased inworking memory regions, suggesting an increased efficiency — so the braindidn't have to work as hard to accomplish tasks.

For the two-week study, 17 subjects with normal baselinememory performance scores were randomly assigned to two groups: a control groupdid not make any behavior modifications, while a test group incorporatedhealthy longevity strategies to improve physical and mental function.

Details of the healthystrategies employed in the study also are highlighted in Small's new book to bepublished today, "The Longevity Bible: 8 Essential Strategies for Keeping YourMind Sharp and Your Body Young" (Hyperion, New York, 2006).

Participants on the healthy longevity plan incorporated thefollowing into their daily routine:

             To stimulate the brain, memory exercises such ascrossword puzzles and brainteasers were conducted throughout the day.

             To improve physical fitness, participants tookdaily walks, which have been found to increase life expectancy and lower therisk of Alzheimer disease.

             To improve their diet, study participants on theplan ate five small meals a day, which prevents drops in blood glucose levelssince glucose is the main energy source for the brain. In addition, they ate abalanced diet full of omega-3 fats, antioxidants and low‑glycemic carbohydrates like whole grains.

             To manage stress, participants performed dailyrelaxation exercises. Small notes that stress causes the body to release cortisol, a hormone that can impair memory and damage brainmemory cells.

Brain function was tested before and after the 14-day study,using positron emission tomography (PET) scans to measure brain activity.Participants who followed the healthy longevity lifestyle plan demonstrated afive percent decrease in brain metabolism in the part of the brain directlylinked to working memory called the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex.

"The finding suggests that for participants who had followedthe healthy longevity program, the brain functioned more efficiently and didn'tneed to use as much glucose to perform effectively," Small said.

In addition, compared to the control group, participantsalso performed better in verbal fluency, a cognitive function controlled by thesame brain region.

"The research demonstrates that in just 14 days, simplelifestyle changes can not only help overall health, but also improve memory andbrain function," Small said. "Our next step is to assess the individual effectsof each lifestyle strategy, which may help us develop an optimal combination.

The study was funded by the Fran and Ray Stark Foundation Fundfor Alzheimer's Disease Research, the Judith Olenick Elgart Fund for Researchon Brain Aging and the Parlow‑SolomonProfessorship on Aging.

Study co-authors also were from UCLA and included Dr. DanielSilverman, Prabha Siddarth,Linda Ercoli, Karen Miller, Dr. Helen Lavretsky, Dr. Benjamin Wright, Susan Bookheimer,Jorge Barrio and Michael Phelps.

The AmericanJournal of Geriatric Psychiatry, published monthly, is the official journal ofthe American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry and can be found online at




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