“Where did I park?” You dashed into the mall, visited a few stores, and now, shopping bags in hand, you realize you can’t remember where you left the car.
“I’ve met that fellow several times…what is his name?”
Names, phone numbers, even familiar words…things sometimes seem to be “on the tip of your tongue” but escape quick recollection.
When you think about your own aging, what concerns you the most? Did you know that more people report apprehension about memory loss than about heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis or any other condition?
It is true that we experience memory changes as we age. Our speed of recollection and the amount of detail we remember decline. We become more likely to experience the classic “absentmindedness,” especially when we are “multitasking” and not paying full attention. Many of us worry that these changes might be symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.
This is certainly not an unreasonable concern. According to a recent report from the Alzheimer’s Association, one out of eight people will develop dementia, many of them living for decades with the disease. While not “an ordinary part of aging,” Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, Parkinson’s and other conditions that cause cognitive impairment are more common the older we get. These conditions can have a negative—even catastrophic—impact on our memory and other areas of cognitive health.
Yet, here is the good news. For most of us, the basic aspects of memory will remain pretty much the same: our vocabulary and language skills, reasoning and logic, the ability to pay attention, acquired skills like playing the guitar or cooking an omelet…and that special quality that we usually refer to as “wisdom.”
As with so many aspects of aging, brain fitness varies from individual to individual. Some of this is hereditary. Yes, genes are a factor. But just as you can keep your body in shape by following a wellness regimen, there are also steps you can take to make it more likely that your memory will remain sound. Here are some great things to remember:
1. Remember to…practice good nutrition. We can choose foods that help protect our brains. The good news is, if you are one of the many adults who try to follow a “heart smart” diet, you are also on track for “brain smart” menu choices. A study by Columbia University researchers confirmed that a high level of “good cholesterol” (HDL) is associated with a lower risk of dementia. Avoid: cholesterol, saturated fats, trans fats. Choose: fish, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats such as olive oil or canola oil. Take a multivitamin—but don’t take megadoses that could be toxic. Even on a day-to-day basis, nourishing meals improve alertness and help us retain memories.
2. Remember to…stay physically active. Just as a “heart smart” diet helps protect the brain, heart-strengthening aerobic exercise improves memory and even lowers the risk of dementia. A National Institute on Aging-funded study showed that moderate aerobic exercise can actually increase the size of the area of the brain involved in memory formation. Indeed, according to a study by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researcher J. Carson Smith, “If you are at genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease, the benefits of exercise to your brain function might be even greater than for those who do not have that genetic risk.” Talk to your healthcare provider about an exercise program that is right for you.
3. Remember to…sleep well. You’ve probably noticed that when you don’t get enough good quality sleep, it is harder to concentrate the next day. And did you know that memories of the day are “filed away” in the brain while we sleep? People who suffer from sleep disturbances often experience memory problems. But many sleep disorders are treatable, so speak to your healthcare provider if you experience trouble falling asleep, bothersome wakeful periods during the night, or snoring (which might suggest sleep apnea—a disorder that causes interruption in breathing during sleep).
4. Remember to…treat depression and avoid stress. Both cause chemical changes that can damage the brain. If you are feeling overly stressed, or if depression is making it hard for you to focus and concentrate, talk with your healthcare provider. Counseling, meditation and other relaxation techniques can all help.
5. Remember to…quit smoking and limit alcohol consumption. Many substances found in cigarette smoke damage the brain and impair memory. A study from Kaiser Permanente demonstrated a startling 172% increased risk of dementia among heavy smokers! And while a number of studies suggest that drinking in moderation might actually be beneficial, having more than a drink or two per day can be toxic to the brain.
6. Remember to…challenge your mind and memory. Mental stimulation encourages new connections between brain cells…so when it comes to the memory, “use it or lose it” isn’t just a cliché. Seek out a variety of mentally challenging activities. Learn a new skill—take up an instrument or study a foreign language. Join a club, volunteer, find extra ways to increase brain-protecting social interaction. Visit a museum or work a difficult puzzle. Passive activities, such as watching TV, don’t offer the same benefits.
7. Remember to…have a memory fitness strategy. It is actually possible to increase memory sharpness through training. Visualization, concentration and other effective memory skill techniques skills improve the retention and accessing of memories. And people of every age now use supplemental technology—everything from simple sticky notes to voice recorders, personal organizers, day planners…the possibilities are endless.
8. Remember to…use seatbelts and wear a bike helmet. Head injury can cause catastrophic damage to the brain and memory. And whether on the road or at home, take proactive steps to protect against falls. Remove clutter that might trip you up, install handrails by stairs and in the bathroom if needed, and ask your healthcare provider about a fall prevention class.
9. Remember to…bring up memory concerns at your next healthcare appointment. Share with your doctor if you have experienced problems, especially disorientation, forgetting recently learned information, or a sudden inability to complete familiar tasks. While it’s tempting to be in denial about memory impairment, early diagnosis of conditions such as Alzheimer’s or mini-strokes allows treatment to begin right away. And when problems stem from a reversible or controllable condition, the sooner treatment begins, the better!
10. Remember to…have your healthcare provider review your medications. Our lives are improved and extended by many of the medicines we take—but over-medication and the side effects of some drugs can dull the memory. Common culprits: tranquilizers, sleeping pills, pain medications, high blood pressure drugs. Your physician may switch you to a different drug or dosage to lessen the effect.
Why add stress to your life by worrying about your memory? Learn about the normal memory changes associated with aging, do all you can to take care of your brain, check out memory compensation strategies…and relax, knowing you’re doing everything you can to keep your memory strong through your later years.