By Edward C. Geehr, M.D.,Published February 21, 2009
You’ve lost your car keys. But it hardly matters since you can’t remember where you parked the car. Some memory loss is normal. But how do you know when something more serious is going on? Read on to find out…
We all want to have instant recall. The sad truth? Once we pass our mid-20s, memory slowly declines.
By our 50s, we start to misplace things, forget appointments, and never mind trying to learn new names. Lists are essential, and we just get better at faking it at meetings.
But what leads to memory loss? And what can we do to safeguard our brains?
Health conditions. Strokes, infections, brain tumors and hormonal disorders like overactive or underactive thyroid can bring on dementia. HIV, tuberculosis, syphilis (in its later stages), herpes and bacterial meningitis can also have a profound effect on thinking and memory.
Vitamin deficiency. Run short on certain vitamins, such as B1 (thamine), B12 and folate, and recall declines as well.
Drugs. These include sedatives, sleeping pills, over-the-counter antihistamines (including many cold remedies), antidepressants and prescription painkillers. Illicit drugs such as Ecstasy can permanently impair memory.
Head injury. Blows to the brain, even mild concussions, have an impact. As boxer Mohammed Ali sadly learned, repeated whacks to the head trigger dementia and lead to Parkinson’s disease.
Alcoholism. Alcoholics eventually deplete thiamine, a B vitamin.
Stress and depression. Prolonged stress, often accompanied by interrupted sleep and a preoccupation with problems.Depression can disrupt focus and responsiveness.
These steps can help keep your brain sharp:
Lower your cholesterol and blood pressure. Both may lead to narrowing of the arteries, lessening blood flow. Less blood to the brain means your memory will suffer. Raising your HDL, or good cholesterol, may stave off the problem as well. In a British study of 3,700 people, those with low levels of HDL had a 53% greater risk of memory loss than those with the highest levels.
Exercise body and brain. Exercise is great for the brain, increasing blood flow and oxygen, and stimulating the growth of new neurons to keep you smart. Exercising your mind is key, too: stimulating puzzles, games and reading helps you stay sharp.
Skip the chips. A healthy diet including lots of green leafy vegetables and fish is a boon to your memory. According to an Italian study, the omega-3 fatty acids in fish, as well as flaxseed, walnuts and soybeans, improve concentration. And green leafy vegetables contain lots of vitamin B (which prevents strokes that can lead to dementia).
Quit smoking. When British researchers tested middle-aged smokers and nonsmokers, they found that smokers had the worst scores on tests measuring memory and other brainy tasks.
Raise a glass. One alcoholic drink a day appears to be healthy for the brain and heart. In fact, one study indicated that people with dementia who had a drink daily had a slower decline than those who drank nothing. But drinking more than 14 drinks a week may raise the risk.
Party on. Have fun with your friends, sign up for new activities, gab on the phone and head to gatherings you enjoy. A University of Michigan study found that just talking to someone for 10 minutes improved memory and intellect on tests shortly afterward.
Unwind. People with higher levels of stress hormones have poorer memory than those with normal levels. So when you feel a stressful moment coming on, try this instant relaxation exercise: Shut your eyes, breathe in deeply through your nose and blow out through your mouth. Repeat at least five times, and you’ll be sure to find your car – and your keys – later.
But how can you tell if it’s a minor memory problem or a serious condition?
Dementia – often called senility – slowly progresses with old age, first eroding memory, attention, language and problem solving. More than five million Americans live with dementia, and two-thirds of them have Alzheimer’s disease, which is a branch of dementia.
Alzheimer’s is more common in women (more than half the cases) than men. Although most dementias strike later in life, Alzheimer’s can hit in the 40s as a slow, steady loss of brain cells. As the disease progresses, patients lose control of their bladders and bowels, and develop severe mood swings. They live about four to six years after diagnosis.
Click here for more Alzheimer’s information.
Diagnosing the Brain’s Decline
A neurologist diagnoses Alzheimer’s through memory tests that confirm dementia and by ruling out other causes, such as strokes and tumors.
Ask these questions to gauge how serious the condition is:
How frequent are the memory lapses? Occasional forgetfulness is not unusual. But frequently forgetting where the car is or when appointments are may be a sign of severe dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Do the memory lapses interfere with day-to-day life? Failing to eat meals, manage personal hygiene, clean clothes or remember regular routes are not normal, and may indicate severe dementia.
Does the person sound like a broken record? Frequent repetition of the same information or questions is a red flag. So are forgetting familiar things such as a friend’s or relative’s name.
Does the person seem confused? Henry Fonda’s character in On Golden Pond lost his way, panicking in a familiar place. Like the movie character, a person with dementia may have trouble following a conversation, lose his place in a game or forget how he arrived at a new spot.
Is the memory loss progressive and disproportionate to that person’s age? If the progression is relentless and the person seems much less functional than her peers, she may have Alzheimer’s.
Talk to your doctor if you think you’re experiencing memory loss.
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