As statistics soar on the number of people who will suffer short-term memory loss in the future, fear about the debilitating disease of Alzheimer’s increases. Recent surveys have found this disease causes the greatest fear among older adults. At the same time articles are appearing in diverse publications encouraging people to take a pro-active stance against memory loss. It is exciting to learn that what we do on a regular basis can actually improve our memory function.
While some degree of memory loss is common as people age, it is not universal. Memory involves learning information, storing it, and pulling it out from storage at the proper time. If any one of these steps fail, the whole system breaks down, but there are specific steps we can take to help our recall and preserve and strengthen our memory:
- Sufficiently focus on information to be able to store it. It helps to prioritize and do only one thing at a time. When you are reading or listening, concentrate on the information being presented. Address a person by name shortly after being introduced. Learn small chunks at a time. Designate special places for important items. Use calendars, schedules, lists and other organizers to help you retain the information.
- Form healthy lifetime habits, especially eating a brain friendly diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables whose antioxidants protect the brain from free radicals. Consume omega-3 fatty acids in such things as walnuts, flaxseed and coldwater fish to protect the brain against oxidative stress and to help signaling between nerve cells. One study found that berries such as blueberries and strawberries delayed cognitive decline. They are rich in flavonoids, plant compounds that have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Challenge your mind continually. Exercise your brain with challenging mental tasks to form new connections between nerve cells and help old ones function efficiently. Even for those with mild cognitive impairment (beginning stages of Alzheimer’s) reading mentally stimulating material, playing new games such as chess and bridge, learning a new language and doing crossword or Sudoku puzzles can produce substantial improvements. A variety of mentally stimulating activities may cause new brain circuitry to grow.
- Exercise your body regularly—even brisk walking enhances the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.
- Remain socially active. Engage in conversations that challenge your mind. Maintain social support and connection rather than withdrawing when you feel your memory slipping. It can reduce stress that compromises memory and improve brain function even in people with mild to moderate dementia.
- Allow adequate sleeping time. This allows you to retrieve information more efficiently. Regular sleeping and awakening times, avoiding caffeine late in the day, eating light in the evening insure a good night’s sleep.
All these things taken together help to better overall memory function.
Research has found that depression and dementia often occur together. A long term study of 13,535 people found that being depressed late in life increased the risk of developing dementia by 70%. The risk rose to 80% for those who suffered depression both in mid-life and late in life. Although there are many other causes for depression, researchers believe depression may actually be an early sign of Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Gordon and Dr. Grossberg caution against a long list of memory thieves. Some of these include head trauma, stress and anxiety, sleep disorders, diseases such as COPD, kidney disease, diabetes, and excessive alcohol intake. Both medical conditions and medications for them can affect your memory function. They advise taking as few medications as possible.
Alzheimer’s is a medically defined disease. If you are experiencing short-term memory loss, you should see a doctor. But don’t jump to conclusions prematurely. There are many causes of memory loss that are not connected with Alzheimer’s. And start early taking care of your brain. Remember that it can be strengthened. Promote the development of brain reserve—which is the neurophysiological explanation for how the brain can delay the onset of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s dementia. And don’t worry about your future. Dr. Paul Nussbaum believes a positive attitude is the best treatment.* More about this next time.
*The Mind Health Report, Vol. 4, Issue 6, June 2012
The material detailed in this article is taken from 5 Strategies for Saving Your Memory, the Mind Health Report, Vol.4, Issue 8, August 2012 which consulted George T. Grossberg, M. D., Samuel W. Fordyce professor and director of geriatric psychiatry in the department of neurology and psychiatry at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine, and Barry Gordon, M. D., Ph.D., a professor of neurology and cognitive science at the John Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore.