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Age, exercise may boost memory

One study found physical differences between the brains of those who work out and those who don't.
One study found physical differences between the brains of those who work out and those who don't.

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CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta reports on exercising for the mind.
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Diet and Fitness

(CNN) -- "You're not getting older, you're getting better." New research shows this traditional compliment may be true when it comes to memory, especially for someone who stays in shape.

Recent studies indicate that a simple exercise routine helps put the brakes on memory loss. And one aspect of memory automatically improves with age, according to a new book.

Like body, like mind

What you do to improve your physical health may actually go to your head, according to Dr. Antonio Convit of the New York University School of Medicine.

"We thought that we were born with a brain and that brain degenerated as we aged until we died," he says. "Now we know that there are many triggers that make parts of the brain regenerate themselves."

One of those triggers may be linked to your fitness level.

"Cardiovascular exercise that's done over a longer period of time will tend to reduce the amount of tissue you lose as you age," says Stan Colcombe, a researcher at the University of Illinois-Urbana.

That includes brain tissue, and losing less of it may mean keeping more precious memories.

Colcombe was part of a team of researchers at the University of Illinois who looked at MRI scans of people 55 or older and discovered dramatic differences in their brains. The people who were physically fit had gray matter in better shape.

NYU's Convit found that losing weight can also improve memory function.

"[Losing weight] will improve how you regulate your glucose, and we have shown that improved glucose regulation is associated with better memory."

Dealing with blood sugar poorly not only affects one's ability to remember but also the size of one area of the brain.

Convit found that individuals with poor glucose regulation had a smaller hippocampus, the part of the brain dealing with memory.

Bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger may have benefited twice from "total recall," but it doesn't take hours in the gym to improve your memory.

Moderate cardiovascular exercise, such as a brisk 30-minute walk a few times a week, should do the trick, according to the University of Illinois-Urbana study.

Improve with no effort

Problems remembering names or appointments, while unpleasant, means trouble with only a small part of your memory, according to Dr. Barry Gordon of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

"A much larger and more important kind of memory is the one that does our thinking for us," said Gordon, author of the book "Intelligent Memory."

"Intelligent memory" works in different parts of the brain from the memory that recalls a spouse's birth date or a friend's name. And intelligent memory grows with age.

Intelligent memory helps people figure things out faster and sparks creativity. It does this by storing memories and skills learned over time.

The brain then uses this knowledge to help it learn automatically by itself. This makes it easier to understand situations and solve problems very quickly -- sometimes even subconsciously.

As you age, intelligent memory increases because it has added a lot of data to a person's memory storage, Gordon says. So, getting older may mean getting wiser.

"It won't guarantee it, but it's the only way to make it happen," says Gordon. "Socrates said there are no boy philosophers. You cannot become wiser without experience."

Unfortunately, intelligent memory doesn't help you remember where you put your keys, says Gordon, but "it will teach you to put your keys in the same place every time."

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