“My memory seems to be going” is one of the most common complaints I hear from patients these days. From losing keys, forgetting appointments, birthdays, anniversaries, where the car was parked, these little lapses in memory are fairly common. When my patients experience these memory glitches, they ask me, “Am I getting old?” My answer to them is both yes and no.
While it’s true that our brains start showing signs of aging around age 40, these momentary lapses of memory are more a sign of stress, over-busy schedules, and fatigue, possibly even depression.
Americans are living much longer these days and current medical research focuses on maintaining good quality of life and brain function to enjoy all those extra years we’re living.
So in the first of this two part article, I’d like to discuss with you what I tell my patients about how aging affects memory loss and some things you can do to preserve good brain health.
Your Aging Brain
Our brain is one of our most important organs. It regulates everything our body does from spontaneous breathing to running a marathon. The brain also regulates everything we are, our every thought and emotion. Think of all the information it has stored in it!
As I like to tell my patients, our brains are a lot like a computer’s hard drive. The more information that’s stored from years of learning, the slower it may become in retrieving that memory as we get older. However, we still have the capacity to learn things. It may just take longer to retrieve the new information we’ve learned.
We have three types of memory that are affected differently as we grow older, they are:
• Short term/temporary – memory that holds things like a phone number from Directory Assistance. This part of memory pretty much stays intact as we grow older, but we may have to write down or repeat numbers several times to recall them.
• Long-term recent – memory most affected by aging. It holds things like what clothes you wore a few days ago, someone’s name you met recently, or what you ate for dinner a few nights ago. With age, we lose ability to remember these things especially names.
• Long-term remote – memory that stores older data like your childhood, or what you were doing on historical dates like September 11, 2001. This part of your memory is not affected by aging as much. In fact, you’re more likely to remember something your father told you as a child than what shirt you wore two days ago.
Memory, Dementia and Alzheimer Disease
There are some symptoms of aging memory loss that could indicate more serious medical conditions like dementia and/or Alzheimer disease. Sometimes these two seem interchangeable as they can share some symptoms, but they really are two separate conditions.
Keep A Healthy Brain – Things You Can Do
I tell my patients that if they want to enjoy a long and productive life, they not only have to stay physically fit but they must stay mentally fit. You need to exercise your brain much the same way you exercise your body! Here are some things you can do to not only help you remember where your keys went but perhaps prevent dementia and/or Alzheimer disease.
• Exercise 3-4 times a week doing aerobic (running, walking, bicycling, swimming, etc) and muscle strengthening with weights, Pilates, yoga. Produces feel-good hormones in your brain, delivers needed oxygen, brightens your mood, and aids in coordination.
• Feed your brain – things like fish and Omega-3 oils repair worn out brain cells and help preserve memory. B vitamins, especially B12, are crucial to good brain health.
• Play mind games – things like crossword puzzles, chess, any type of game that requires memory recall will stimulate your brain and help your memory stay sharp.
• Get enough sleep – Your brain and other parts of your body replenish and repair while you are sleeping. Keeping a regular sleep schedule will help you stay sharp.
• Avoid smoking or alcohol. Research has shown that smokers and alcohol drinkers develop dementia more than nonsmokers. Alcohol kills brain cells that do not recover.
As I’ve explained here, some aspects of memory loss are common and just natural nuisances associated with getting older. Some memory loss, however, is associated with serious conditions like dementia and Alzheimer disease. If you, or a loved one, experience any of the symptoms of dementia or Alzheimer disease, consult your doctor. With early treatment, dementia can often be turned around and Alzheimer disease can be slowed down greatly.
In Part II we’ll look at how prescription and recreational drugs can affect your memory. We’ll also look at how certain natural supplements can help stave off effects of aging on your memory and help keep you mentally alert and sharp.
In the meantime, try to engage in some of the brain-healthy activities listed here. Take a break from your computer, go for a brisk walk, run or bike ride in the sun that will fire up your brain cells with oxygen! Then grab a cup of brain-boosting java, find your daily newspaper, and give the crossword puzzle a try. You just gave your body and brain a good workout and boosted your memory power!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.