Use It or Lose It; Ways to Cope With Memory Loss
No matter how “normal” memory lapses may be, let’s face it, that doesn’t make them any less frustrating. Experts agree that the best way to keep your brain fit is to keep using it.
“People should realize that they have more control than they think, that one-third [of memory loss] is genetics, that means we have the potential to influence a large component of our brain aging,” Gary Small, MD, author of The Memory Bible: An innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young, and director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at the UCLA psychiatric institute told WebMD. “The sooner we get started, the sooner we’re going to benefit from it.”
Small emphasizes four things in his books to slow down brain aging: mental activity, physical fitness, stress reduction, and healthy diet. “People who eat too much are at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and other conditions that increase their risk for small strokes in the brain. Secondly, you want to have a diet that’s rich in antioxidants.” Small says antioxidants help protect brain cells and exercise helps with overall health.
Staying intellectually and socially engaged are “probably the most important things you can do to help extend and maintain your cognitive abilities for a longer period of time in life,” Zola says. Challenging oneself by learning new things, reading, and taking up hobbies keep the brain active and strong for the long haul.
Some other things you can do to improve memory include:
- Focus your attention. Forgetfulness may indicate that you have too much on your mind. Slow down and focus on the task at hand. Small says multitasking and not paying attention are some of the biggest causes of forgetfulness, especially in younger people.
- Reduce stress. Stress can endanger the brain areas involved with memory processing and impair memory.
- Choose to snooze. Zola says sleep is important because fatigue can affect memory and concentration in any age group.
- Structure your environment. Use calendars and clocks, lists and notes, and write down daily activities on a planner or use an electric organizer. Store easy-to-lose items in the same place each time after using them. Park your car in the same place at the office each day.
- Try memory tricks. To remember a person’s name, repeat it several times after being introduced. Use the same personal identification number (PIN) for all of your accounts if necessary.
When to See a Doctor
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition that damages areas of the brain involved in memory, intelligence, judgment, language, and behavior. While there is no definitive way to pinpoint an Alzheimer’s brain — short of autopsy — there are some diagnostic ways doctors distinguish normal memory loss from that which should raise concern. Normal forgetfulness includes:
• Forgetting parts of an experience
• Forgetting where you park the car
• Forgetting events from the distant past
• Forgetting a person’s name, but remembering it later
While research shows that up to half of people over age 50 have mild forgetfulness linked to age-associated memory impairment, there are signs when more serious memory conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, are happening, including:
• Forgetting an experience
• Forgetting how to drive a car or read a clock
• Forgetting recent events
• Forgetting ever having known a particular person
• Loss of function, confusion, or decreasing alertness
• Symptoms become more frequent or severe
Still confused? Zola sums it up. “The kind of rule of thumb that’s kind of whimsical in a sense but clinicians often use is, if you’re worried about [your memory], it’s probably not that serious, but if your friends and relatives are worried about it, then it probably is more serious.”
By Cherie Berkley, MS
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Stuart Zola, PhD, director, Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Atlanta; professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Emory School of Medicine, Atlanta. Gary Small, MD, director, Memory and Aging Research Center, UCLA Neuropsychiatric Hospital & Institute; author, The Memory Bible: An innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Youn. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Alzheimer’s Disease.” WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: “Confusion, Memory Loss, and Altered Alertness.”