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Monitoring your memory

How to stay sharp

Created date

February 21st, 2012

Some mild memory problems can come with normal aging due to changes in the brain, says Janice Gable, M.D., medical director at Greenspring, an Erickson Living community in Springfield, Va. As you get older, you may take longer to learn new information, or you may misplace things more often such as your purse or glasses. But if you ve forgotten where you put your keys three times this week, how do you know you don t have a memory-robbing disease such as Alzheimer s? You won t know at first, Gable says. The first symptoms of Alzheimer s or other dementia-related conditions and the signs of age-related memory changes are identical, Gable says. You have to be formally tested over time to determine if there s a problem. Age-related memory changes tend to take the form of a delay in remembering something as opposed to a complete loss of the ability to recall information, she explains. Slightly more serious is mild cognitive impairment (MCI). People with MCI have more memory problems than normal for their age, but they are able to function fairly well, and their memory deficits are not as severe as those found in Alzheimer s disease. Signs of MCI include misplacing things frequently, forgetting important appointments, and having trouble coming up with a particular word in conversation. Not everyone with MCI will progress to Alzheimer s disease. Dementia-related disease such as Alzheimer s is characterized by the loss of thinking, memory, and reasoning skills. People with dementia become unable to function in their daily activities. With dementia-related disease, you tend to forget entire events or you may not recognize family members, Gable says.

Causes of memory loss

Just because you have some memory problems doesn t mean you have Alzheimer s disease. Memory problems can be related to treatable medical conditions such as thyroid problems, a vitamin B12 deficiency, or depression, Gable explains. Some medications may have side effects that interfere with your memory. Stress or a lack of sleep may also be contributing factors. Talk to your doctor about the difficulties you are having. A brief screening test can be done right in the office, and if problems are found, a more intensive memory assessment can be performed, Gable says. After a full medical workup, if memory problems continue, you can be tested again in six months or a year to see if it s progressing. Fortunately, both routine memory testing and a cognitive assessment are components of an annual wellness visit that is now covered by Medicare. Having this wellness visit is an important way to catch problems early and possibly prevent a hospitalization, Gable says.

Keep your memory fit

There is a lot of misinformation, particularly on the Internet, about how to maintain memory health, says Margaret Stewart, D.H.A., senior director of health services clinical programming for Erickson Living. People should focus on strategies that are supported by solid scientific evidence to ensure they get the best results for their efforts. Research has given us examples of things that have not been proven to help your memory such as estrogen replacement therapy, antioxidants, or ginkgo biloba. Strategies to keep your memory sharp may depend on your diagnosis, Gable explains. But we know that people who exercise regularly hang onto their memories better. There is strong research evidence that physical activity is a prevention measure against Alzheimer s disease. Both vitamin D supplements and a Mediterranean diet are being studied as possibly beneficial to memory health, Stewart adds. With more research emerging on the topic of memory-related problems, people have increasing opportunities to take care of their memory health. An example is the Memory Support program, which is currently in development across all Erickson Living campuses. This program can help anyone from those who want to prevent memory problems to people who need more support because of dementia-related illnesses, Stewart says. The Memory Support program has three components: memory fitness, memory health, and memory care. The memory fitness piece of the program is for individuals who have no memory problems and want to stay sharp, Stewart says. Part of this program is a class that teaches people to take care of themselves by eating a nutritious diet, reducing stress, exercising, and getting enough sleep. Classes also include memory exercises such as learning a new game, skill, or anything that helps the brain make new connections. We also have a memory health program for people who are starting to have MCI or early stages of a dementia-related disease, Stewart continues. Individuals in this program have more support services available to them, including medical management and ongoing monitoring by their doctors. The final component of the Memory Support program is memory care. This comprehensive care model is developed for people who have dementia and need the most support in an extended-care environment, Stewart says. All elements are designed to help individuals stay as independent and productive as possible. Memory Tips Along with exercise, the National Institute of Aging offers these tips to keep your memory sharp:
  • Make "to do" lists; use calendars and other notes.
  • Develop new interests and hobbies.
  • Limit alcohol use.
  • Find ways to relieve feelings of stress and anxiety.