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Don’t forget to remember

Preserving your memory

Created date

July 13th, 2009

You forgot where you put your keys. Again. Even worse, your friend called wondering why you missed your lunch date yesterday. What is happening? Could you have early dementia? We all misplace things and forget about appointments sometimes, says Raj Shah, M.D., medical director of Rush Alzheimer s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Ill. It s worrisome, however, when someone can t retrace their steps to find a lost object or can t figure out why they missed an appointment. Factors affecting memory Stress could be a culprit if your memory s not as sharp as it used to be. Like any other body system, our brains undergo wear and tear from years of use, says Nancy Johnson, Ph.D., assistant professor at Northwestern University s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer s Disease Center in Chicago, Ill. Add stress to an already aging brain, and you can have problems with what s called your working memory concentration, sustained attention, and processing speed. Health conditions like diabetes and strokes can interfere with working memory, as can medications. You may become more sensitive to medication side effects that you tolerated at a younger age, says Mark Holden, M.D. Problems can be detected earlier if you keep your doctor informed about all medications you are taking, including over-the-counter drugs. When is it a problem? It s a red flag when someone can t form new memories from new experiences, like forgetting about being introduced to someone, Holden says. Even if you have minor memory lapses that are troublesome, you should be evaluated, Shah says. That will help you and your doctor to develop a plan to address your concerns. Your doctor can administer memory tests to determine the severity of memory loss. When memory loss is detectable on standardized memory tests but the doctor does not find that you meet medical criteria for a dementia, a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) may be made, Shah says. At this point, you should be followed at least yearly by your doctor because MCI could be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer s disease. Memory loss can further progress to the point where it significantly affects your daily life. If someone can t balance their checkbook or manage their medication, they may have a type of dementia, Shah says. Dementia is a slow decline in mental function, including memory, thinking, judgment, and the ability to learn. Alzheimer s disease is the most common type of dementia. The brain/body connection Keeping your body fit through diet and activity benefits your mental fitness. Whatever is good for your heart is probably good for your brain, Johnson says. Scientists used to think that older adults brains were inflexible, hence the adage, you can t teach an old dog new tricks. If you get mired in the same routines, your brain becomes hardwired or less elastic. Research shows, however, that older adults brains retain some plasticity. Plasticity refers to your brain s ability to rearrange the connections among its cells. Staying physically active can help maintain your brain s plasticity. One study found particular brain benefits for 60 to 80 year olds who walked three times a week. Compared to their non-exercising counterparts, the walkers had more flexibility with their thinking skills. Along with contributing to better overall brain function, exercise has been shown to be the biological equivalent of antidepressants when it comes to improving your mood. Reducing your risk of depression helps you function better in your daily life and may help to reduce your risk of dementia. We re finding in our research that depressive symptoms and anxiety can have an effect on your memory, Shah says. A good diet may also play a role. Some research suggests that improved memory may be associated with a diet high in colorful vegetables, fruits, and fish containing high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, Shah says. Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in coldwater fish or fatty fish like salmon and tuna. Exercise your brain socialize! Along with a good diet and physical fitness, choose activities that make your brain learn something new, Holden says. If you like to play cards, learn a new card game. Or learn a language or a musical instrument. Learning new things is beneficial as long as you don t get frustrated, Johnson says. Frustration can lead to stress, which can disrupt your memory and thinking abilities. What about high-tech brain exercises? Although some studies have indicated they yield positive benefits, there is no scientific evidence that high-tech computer programs are better for your mental fitness than other kinds of activities, Johnson says. If people think computer-based games are helping their mental sharpness, then they should certainly continue playing them, Holden says. And don t forget to socialize. People who maintain social networks seem to have better mental fitness. You don t have to socialize in a large group, Shah says. Simply interacting with key people on a regular basis, whether it s sharing experiences, stories, or hobbies, can make a difference. "Like any other body system, our brains undergo wear and tear from years of use." -Nancy Johnson, Ph.D.