If you keep forgetting why you walked into a room or where you left your keys, you might start to wonder whether these are just signs of aging or of memory loss you should be concerned about.
Just what is the normal age-related forgetfulness? Think of it in terms of a slowdown in thinking or processing. It may take you longer to explain things or make decisions. Everyone’s short-term memory can hold only so much at a time. So, if you’re multitasking rather than focusing on just one thing, it becomes harder to remember many bits of information, like why you went from the living room into the den.
You might be a “sometimer”—you sometimes have a bout of memory loss or forgetfulness. This tends to happen under certain circumstances, such as when you’re dealing with a lot of stress, anxiety or depression, experiencing a string of sleepless nights, or drinking too much alcohol, all of which can stretch an already-stretched brain reserve even further.
Most of the time, however, age-related memory loss doesn’t impact your everyday life, keep you from work or leisure activities, or affect your relationships. Memory loss related to dementia, however, will have pronounced effects. You might feel disoriented or confused about what day it is or what time of day it is, make multiple appointments with the same doctor because you have no awareness that you already did it, or get lost when driving, even in familiar areas. In other words, you lose the ability to function normally in common situations.
Here are a few examples that show the striking difference between what’s normal memory loss and what isn’t:
Strengthen your cognitive reserve
Cognitive reserve is a reservoir of thinking abilities that you fill over the course of your life from a variety of activities that you engage in and that, in turn, engage key regions of your brain. Having this reserve allows your brain to compensate for the mental changes of aging and even acts as a protective buffer against mild cognitive impairment. Your brain can tap into the reserve the way you would tap into bank savings just when you need it, such as when facing a new challenge or trying to problem-solve.
Research studies have found that people with higher cognitive reserve have a slower rate of cognitive decline as they age and a reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. We know from autopsies that some people develop the physical changes in the brain of Alzheimer’s, such as lesions, but because their brain was able to override them thanks to their cognitive reserve, they never experienced symptoms and were never diagnosed with the disease when they were alive.
No one yet knows for sure what mechanisms turn life experiences into cognitive reserve, but it’s thought that these activities stimulate new or stronger connections in the brain and make the brain networks that underlie specific cognitive functions more efficient. Though the earlier you add to your reserve the better, it’s never too late to increase it. In fact, you should make the effort because the “use it or lose it” adage applies to keeping your brain sharp. There are three brain domains that respond to different kinds of engagement. While there’s overlap between them, each type matters.
- Social engagement. Maintaining conversations is great for engaging your brain. More and more studies show that people who are isolated or lonely are more likely to have memory issues. Make a point to reach out to family, friends, and others in your social network.
- Mental engagement. Even more than doing puzzles and crosswords, taking courses and traveling are excellent activities for challenging your brain.
- Physical engagement. The most impactful and established way to feed your brain is to exercise. While anything is better than nothing when it comes to movement, the more you do, the more your brain will thank you.
Think of the brain as a muscle, and just as you might cross-train at the gym for optimal physical fitness, cross-train your brain with different types of activities within each area of engagement. That could mean having a weekly family get-together and joining a book club, learning a foreign language and doing brain games, and adding some yoga or balance work to a walking regimen.
Look for activities that engage more than one area, such as taking a dance class, which provides socialization, exercise, and skill building.
Here are more steps you can take:
- Improve your sleep hygiene. Studies have shown that people with chronic sleep problems have more memory issues down the line, especially if they miss out on slow-wave sleep. CBT-I, or cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, is now the first-line approach to help with sleep problems. Keep your bedroom cool and dark with no electronics or gadgets in sight.
- Diet matters. Follow the Mediterranean diet and eat lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, extra virgin olive oil and fish, with very little meat or other sources of saturated fats. Also, aim to maintain a healthy weight.
- Check in with your doctor. Make sure that any memory loss isn’t a side effect of a medication you’re taking. These include drugs for bladder incontinence, prescription painkillers and, ironically, some sleep or anxiety medications. Vitamin B-12 deficiency and hypothyroidism, in rare cases, can interfere with memory.
- Use tried-and-true hacks to help overcome memory blips. Keep a running written or digital list for food shopping. Make task-based to-do lists and plan out the steps you’ll take; then, plug them into notepad app or calendar on your cell phone or computer. Designate one spot—maybe a bowl on a counter or shelf—to keep all your essentials, like wallet, keys, phone, remotes and sunglasses. Drop them in when you’re not using them, and keep them there until you need them again.
The bottom line: To protect your memory, come up with a plan that you can realistically sustain for the long term, even if you begin with just two or three goals—maybe that you’ll exercise for a few minutes each day, schedule a weekly social engagement, and take steps to sleep better. Then, put your energy into making that happen, year after year.
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