The body is the most fascinating machine ever created, and nobody talks about it in ways that are as illuminating and compelling as Dr. Michael Roizen and Dr. Mehmet Oz do. In You: The Owner's Manual, they showed how the human body works in general, and in You: On a Diet, they explained how bodies lose weight and stay fit; both books have sold in the millions. Now, in You: Staying Young, the doctors talk about what happens as the body ages. As with their previous titles, Dr. Roizen and Dr. Oz have conducted tireless research and will introduce fascinating and crucial information in an unforgettable way.
Most people think of the aging of their bodies the same way they think of the aging of their cars: "As people get older, it's inevitable that they're going to break down; it could be in just a few ways or it could be in dozens of ways." Most people have the notion that once they reach 40 or so, a slow and steady decline of the mind, eyes, ears, joints, arteries, libido, and every other system that affects the quality of life begins to take effect.
However, according to Drs. Roizen and Oz, that's a mistake. Aging isn't a decline of the body's systems. It's actually very purposeful. The very systems and biological processes that cause people to age are actually designed to help people when they're a little bit younger.
So what's the role of those who are part of the aging population? To learn how these systems work, so they can be reprogrammed to work the way they did when they were younger. Listeners' goals should be to die young at any age. That means living a high quality of life (with everything from working joints to working genitals) until the day they die. The doctors' real goal isn't just to make people live longer; it's to allow them to maintain vibrancy throughout their entire lives.
Develop a Memorable Memory
Our brains sure do have a way of messing with our minds.
One moment, you can be spitting out the names of your entire third-grade
class, the batting statistics from the 1974 St. Louis Cardinals, the
color dress you wore to the eighth-grade Sadie Hawkins Day dance, or the
entire script from your favorite Seinfeld episode. The next
minute, you space on the name of your cat.
Call them what you want -- senior moments, doomsday to dementia -- but
the truth is that we all experience these neurological hiccups as we
age. And we all wonder exactly what they mean. Some of us write them off
to stress, fatigue, or some kind of neurological overload that's caused
by the ogre who signs our paychecks, while others worry about whether a
moment of forgetfulness means that we have a first-class ticket on the
express train to Alzheimer's.
No matter what we may think causes our decline in mental acuity, most
people share a pretty big assumption about our gray matter: Either our
brains are genetically determined to be Ginsu sharp for the duration, or
we're eventually going to live life putting on our underwear last. That
is, we believe that our genes, the very first Major Ager,
completely control our neurological destiny.
That simply isn't true.
While many diseases and conditions have genetic elements to them, memory
conditions have some of the strongest genetic indicators. For example, a
PET (positron-emission tomography) scan, which records images of the
brain as it functions, reveals evidence of early Alzheimer's when it
identifies that the brain is misusing energy. This abnormality is caused
by illness of the mitochondria (more details on this Major Ager on page
48), which is genetically determined. But the truth is that even if your
genes have decided to give you a life of serious forgetfulness, you do
have the ability to control those genes so your mind is strong, your
brain functions at full power, and you remember everything from the
crucial details of your life to whether or not you turned off the oven
-- even when your birthday candles reach triple digits. Plus, we have
lots of data from twin studies saying that less than 50 percent of
memory is inherited, meaning that if you get a head start on the action
steps we're going to cover, you can alter how your genes are expressed.
In the end, genetics loads the gun, but your lifestyle pulls the
Clearly, the brain is the most complex organ in your body. In fact, if
the brain were simpler, we wouldn't be smart enough to understand it.
But we are. Think of your brain as the city's electrical grid. Your
brain's nerve cells, or neurons, are constantly firing and receiving
messages in much the same way that power plants send signals and homes
and businesses receive them. Power may originate from a main source, but
the connections then branch out every which way throughout the city.
Your brain functions the same way: Messages are sent from one neuron to
another across your neurological grid. When those neurons successfully
communicate with one another through the sending and receiving of
neurological impulses, your brain can file away your memories.
But what happens when a storm, an accident, or a chainsaw-wielding
hoodlum knocks out the power lines? You lose connections, so you lose
power -- maybe to a particular neighborhood or maybe to a large segment
of the city, depending on which ones got fried. Same goes for your
brain. If something knocks out those neural connections, then small or
large parts of your brain can experience a blackout, and you freak
because you can't remember that you left the car keys on the back of the
Certainly, many things can cause malfunctions in your neurological grid.
Some are acute and immediate, like a concussion arising from a brain
bruise. Others are more chronic, as in the case of a genetic malfunction
that can cause your power lines to be rickety so they easily fritz out.
These are the ones that we're mainly going to address here.
Your Memory: Don't Fuggedaboudit
Part of our job as doctors is to tell you things straight up, because
when we don't tell the truth, people get hurt. No sugarcoating. No BS
(that really stands for no bad science). No "Win One for the Gipper"
speeches. When it comes to your brain, here's a fact that's harsher than
a Buffalo winter: The research shows that, eventually, everyone in
America will either get Alzheimer's or care for someone who has it.
In some way or another, we're all going to be affected by serious
change-your-life memory problems. But the Gipper side of that statistic
is this: Memory disorders aren't as uncontrollable as they seem, and the
way to attack potential brain problems is by using your brain to
understand them. For starters, here are some things you should know
about your noggin:
- We actually experience a mental decline a lot earlier than we
realize. Memory loss starts at age sixteen and is relatively common by
forty. One way you can see this is through research done on video game
players. People start losing their hand-eye coordination and the ability
to perform exceptionally well on video games after the age of
twenty-five. The fascinating part of this research isn't that you'll
rarely beat your kid in Mario Kart: Double Dash; it's that even if your
brain knows what to do when presented with an animated hairpin turn at
135 mph, your brain can't fire those messages fast enough to your
trigger-happy thumbs. There's a natural slowing of the connection -- the
power line -- between your brain and your body.
- Men and women not only differ when it comes to movie tastes and
erogenous zones, but also differ when it comes to mental decline. Men
usually lose their ability to solve complex problems as they age, while
women often lose their ability to process information quickly. That
split shows us a couple of things. One, that there's certainly a strong
genetic component to memory loss. And, two, that there are specific
actions you should be taking to combat that genetic disposition. While
there are some places where you're naturally going to decline because of
your sex, there are other areas where you're going to have an advantage.
That means your job isn't only to try to rebuild the area that's
breaking down but to preserve the areas that excel. But across the
board, both genders lose competency in the areas in which they are weak
to begin with. So women lose spatial cognition, and men suffer verbal
losses. Though it's certainly not true for everyone, it may give you
clues as to what areas of your brain to concentrate on as you age -- or
it may help you play to your strengths. (Those with poor memory recall
can use organizational skills to compensate, for example.)
- You don't have to have an elite brain to know that your three-pound
organ has more power than a rocket booster. It controls everything from
your emotions to your decision making, and it gives you the ability to
understand why the baseball in Figure 11.1 on page 220 is pretty darn
funny. But when we discuss memory loss, we're essentially focusing on
three specific brain functions: sensory information (your ability to
determine what information is important), short-term memory loss (quick,
what's the title of this chapter?), and long-term memory loss (that's
your bank of recipes, trivia, names, and every piece of information
you've known, read, and stored during your life).
Whether you've seen it on the news, on TV shows, or within your own
family, you know how dementia looks from the outside: People forget
faces, names, where they live, and information that seems -- to the rest
of the world -- so easy to remember. The most frequently seen problem:
getting lost on a walk home. To really control your own genetic destiny,
you need to take a look at what memory loss looks like on the inside.
For the record, age-related memory loss is classified in several ways.
Conditions such as Alzheimer's, dementia, and mild cognitive impairment
are all technically different. For our purposes, we're tackling them all
together as age-related memory problems because of the similarities in
how they change people's lives.
Your Brain: Mind and Matter
Before we crack some skulls and dive inside the brain, let's quickly
look at what memory really is: Essentially, it's the process of learning
information, storing it, and then having the ability to recall it when
you need it -- whether to solve problems, tell stories, or save yourself
on the witness stand.
Learning begins with those power connections in your brain: neurons
firing messages to one another. Your ability to process information is
determined by the junctions between those neurons, called the synapses.
The ability of brain cells to speak to one another is strengthened or
weakened as you use them. We'll spare you all the biological miracles
that take place between your ears, but essentially, the more you use
those synapses, the stronger they get and the more they proliferate.
That's why you may have strong neural pathways for your family history
or weak ones for eighties music trivia. That also gives you a little
insight into how you remember things. If something's exciting to you,
then you learn it faster -- and train those synapses to make strong
connections. But if the information seems more boring than the sexual
habits of an earthworm, you can still learn and build those connections
with repeated use.
Problems arise when synapses lie dormant: The less you use certain
connections, the greater chance they have of falling into disrepair
(like losing fluency in a foreign language if you don't use it for a
long time). Technically, we actually learn by weakening underutilized
synapses and repairing and strengthening the synapses we commonly use.
So if you cook a lot and enjoy it, you'll eventually know the recipes by
heart -- and learn them faster because it's enjoyable. You build a large
connecting wire, which allows for the faster flow of information. By
contrast, lesser-used pathways fall into disrepair, so you lose or
disable those connections. If you haven't exercised your 1970s TV trivia
synapse in a long time, then you're not going to remember the name of
the kid who played Bobby Brady on The Brady Bunch (ten points if
you said Mike Lookinland before we did).
To keep your memory functioning at optimal power, you'll need to focus
three aspects of your biology.
Your Brain. Let's peel back your scalp and look through a peephole in
your head. From the toupee's-eye view, you can see that your brain has
100 billion nerve cells, and each cell receives one hundred messages per
second. Yup. In the time it takes you to read this sentence, your brain
cells have been doing more processing than the IRS's computer server.
Your neurons -- the cells that transmit information -- look like mops
with shaggy strings that reach out to one another, while the handles of
the mops act like cables that carry the information. These neurons talk
with one another with the frequency of eighth-grade girls at a slumber
party; a lot of information is exchanged very quickly.
The hippocampus, which is shaped a little like a seahorse and is buried
deep inside your brain (see Figure 1.1), is the main driver of memory.
(The other two memory-related areas of the brain are the prefrontal
cortex, which controls the executive function of your brain, and the
cerebellum, which controls balance.) Your hippocampus processes
information before it is stored. It works best when you're either
emotionally interested in the material or alert when you're learning
about it. That's one reason why coffee may aid memory; it seems to
increase your alertness the first time you learn something, which
increases the chance you'll deposit it in your long-term memory bank.
But for the purposes of aging, we're mostly concerned about what happens
to the power lines within your brain. So flip on your hippocampus (or
grab a cup of coffee) and remember this: There are protein fragments in
your brain that sound like the name of a Star Wars droid --
beta-amyloid -- and they're responsible for gunking up your power lines
like overgrown vegetation or fallen branches. They're likely responsible
for causing Alzheimer's. The primary defect in Alzheimer's affects the
input and output power lines of the hippocampus. Memory starts to fade.
(The other physiological sign of Alzheimer's is the buildup of what are
called neurofibrillary tangles. They're insoluble twisted fibers that
build up inside neurons, like power lines getting crossed up and sending
energy to the wrong location. These tangles influence intelligence.)
Now, a downed branch here and there won't do much to disrupt the flow of
energy through your entire city, but what happens when a lot of branches
or shrubs or trees fall on the same part of the grid? You're out of
In general, genes control how much beta-amyloid you have. Some branches
may be knocking out those notes from your course in eighteenth-century
Roman history, while others may be causing you to forget to pick up the
very thing that you went to the supermarket for in the first place. But
your genes don't have complete control. You can alter the amount of gunk
you have gooping up and weighing down your power lines by altering the
expression of one of your genes: the Apo E gene, to be exact. Apo E
protein acts like the power company crew that removes the branches and
sap from the power lines after the storm. It sweeps through and removes
the beta-amyloid so that your synapses can keep functioning and you
don't lose the ability to remember how many career touchdown passes Dan
Marino threw (420), or what year Diane Keaton won an Oscar for best
actress (1977). Whenever we create new synapses to help our brain
improve itself, some of this beta-amyloid remains behind, and the Apo E
workers clear the gunk to ensure a clean connection.
One group in the union, however, local Apo E4, sabotages the effort to
restore power and even gunks up the power lines further (see Figure
1.2). Research shows that an elevated level of the E4 protein is
correlated with a higher incidence of Alzheimer's. Fortunately, there
are things you can do to turn down the activity of the E4 gene and allow
the rest of the Apo E team to clear your power lines. Eating turmeric,
which is found in Indian foods, seems to reduce expression of the E4
gene (India, by the way, has a relatively low incidence of Alzheimer's).
Exercise has a similar effect.
Your Blood Supply: While there's a strong genetic component to memory
problems, we'd be remiss if we didn't address the arterial component of
an aging brain. A lack of healthy blood flow to the brain is one of the
other main causes of forgetfulness. Each side of the brain has a
separate blood supply that looks like several large trees during winter.
Between the twigs at the tips of the major branches are areas of brain
that are dependent on blood from each of the surrounding trees. The area
farthest from two blood-supply lines is the watershed area where we tend
to have ministrokes when the branches of surrounding trees are pruned by
atherosclerosis or the tree trunks themselves wither from poor
maintenance (see Figure 1.3). Cholesterol-lowering statin drugs may help
maintain memory by preserving tree architecture, while also reducing
inflammation that ages the brain cells directly (more on arterial health
in the next chapter).
Your Neurochemicals: Nerve cells communicate with one another via
neurotransmitters, chemicals that ferry information from neuron to
neuron across the synapses between them. The most common
neurotransmitter is called acetylcholine. When levels of this chemical
fall, especially in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that controls
our memory), we develop cognitive impairment. Many of the treatments for
Alzheimer's are aimed at increasing the amount of acetylcholine in the
The other chemical that plays a significant role in memory is called
brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF, or just neurotrophins if you
prefer), which works like Miracle-Gro for your brain. During infancy,
BDNF helps develop nerves that help us learn, but as we get older,
things like inflammation and stress can decrease its levels. Research
shows that you can do things to improve your levels of BDNF, such as
consuming the spice curcumin (a component of turmeric), restricting
calories, doing exercise, being in love, and taking some of a class of
antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or
SSRIs. Not surprisingly, you can decrease BDNF by eating high levels of
saturated fats and refined sugars, as well as by not getting enough of
the natural antidepressant tryptophan (sure, it's found in turkey, but
there's twice as much in spinach) in your diet.
So what's the biological effect of all this? Well, if you have serious
memory-related problems, the gray matter in your brain actually shrivels
faster than a centenarian sunbather. And the connections that are so
important to maintaining memory get blocked and broken and detoured so
that your memory function is slowed -- or sometimes lost. In the end,
that can cause you to lose the power lines that go to the neighborhood
of fashion trivia or to the office complex of phone numbers or to the
cul-de-sac of your anniversary date.
Luckily, as you'll see, there are several simple ways to restore those
power lines, regrow those neural connections, and preserve one of the
most powerful things you can pass along to the generations that follow:
your memory. And your wisdom.
Copyright © 2007 by Michael F. Roizen, M.D., and Oz Works
Excerpted from "You: Staying Young: The Owner's Manual for Extending Your Warranty" by Michael F. Roizen. Copyright © 2007 by Michael F. Roizen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.