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Is Your Memory Normal?
Memory Trouble? It May Be Stress
Easy Memory Boosters
Is Your Memory Normal?
They say that memory is the second thing to go as you get older. So what's the first? Umm, I forgot! And actually, by the time you reach the end of this story, you may remember only a fraction of it. Not to worry, you're not alone.
Experts say that mild memory loss is perfectly normal -- especially as we age. That's right, if you sometimes forget simple things, you're not necessarily developing Alzheimer's disease. There is a gang of people walking around just like you who occasionally misplace their keys, have that deer-in-headlights look as they search for their cars in parking lots, and can't recall the name of one new person they met at their last office party -- yes, the one from last night. And there's a reason for those character-themed floors coupled with the happy-go-lucky music in Disney amusement park parking garages.
"If we have forgotten an appointment, we begin thinking, 'Uh oh, is this the first sign of Alzheimer's disease?' and we become much more conscious, and it gets kind of a disproportionate amount of attention when it really may be something quite benign," Stuart Zola, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory School of Medicine and director of Yerkes National Primate Facility in Atlanta.
Memory is the ability to normally recall the facts and events of our lives, and this takes place in three stages:
Stage 1: Encoding. This is when a person takes information in.
Stage 2: Consolidation. This is when the brain takes the information it encodes and processes it so that it gets stored in certain areas of the brain.
Stage 3: Retrieval. When a person recalls stored information in the brain.
But differentiating between normal memory loss and Alzheimer's disease can be puzzling for a layman; the kind of memory that is affected in day-to-day situations is also the kind affected in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
Time: Memory's Worst Enemy
Fear not, memory loss and brain aging are a natural part of getting older. "It is often the case that people will start to report in their 50s that they think their memories are slipping," says Zola, a research career scientist who has dedicated his work to memory function. "They seem to be consciously aware of that because they have to use more kinds of reminders or more kinds of strategies to remember things."
But memory loss can happen even before we hit our 50s. Many people even in their 20s and 30s have forgotten a name or an appointment date or some fact that was on the "tip of their tongue." Memory is tricky, and time is its worst enemy, says Zola. In fact, shortly after taking in information, memory traces begin to deteriorate, he explains. "Some things begin to fade right away, other things fade less quickly, and they're a bunch of different forgetting curves with different rates of forgetting depending the nature of the material, depending on how important it is for you, depending on your stress level, depending on ... all of the things that can affect memory."
If you've ever gotten into heated debate with someone about how a past event or experience transpired, there's a likely reason. You may think you have a vivid memory of an experience, but studies show that after awhile, people probably don't remember events as they actually happened. Memory distortion -- also a side effect of father time -- explains this. This is the phenomenon where as time passes our ability to accurately recall events becomes diminished -- and the longer the period of time that passes between the event and trying to recall it, the greater the chance we're going to have some memory distortions and forgetting. Sometimes time distortion causes us to forget the event totally, Zola explains.
Other Causes of Memory Loss
But even if you think your slips of the old noggin aren't normal, there could be other reasons for it short of Alzheimer's disease, including:
The good news is, causes of memory loss from many of these conditions are normally reversible. Zola says depression and stress are the most common reasons for temporary memory problems.
"If your encoding isn't good, you're not going to get the information in properly, and so you're going to have difficulty retrieving it because it isn't there in good form to retrieve. So that's the kind of memory problem associated with depression, or with attention deficit disorder, as its name implies, you have trouble paying attention and focusing."
Stress affects the way the brain processes memory, Zola says. "So it's not so surprising that you have memory problems often during very stressful states because part of the brain is not engaged in the way it needs to ordinarily be in order to have good memory."
Use It or Lose It
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 tells 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:
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:
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:
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."
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."
Memory Trouble? It May Be Stress
Easy Memory Boosters
Brain Boosters. Do you sometimes feel like you're losing your mind? Forgetting things? Having a senior moment? It's no secret that there are foods and supplements that are good for the heart, but did you know that there are foods, supplements and activities that can go a long way toward protecting your brain as well?
Blueberries. Blueberries are the ultimate memory food. Research at the USDA showed that daily consumption of blueberries dramatically slows the impairment of memory that usually accompanies old age. Compounds in blueberries called polyphenols actually help "turn on" the signals that let neurons (brain cells) communicate with each other more effectively.
Strawberries. Compounds in strawberries help protect your brain and preserve your memory. In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, animals that consumed an extract of strawberries, spinach and blueberries every day had significant improvements in their short-term memory. Not only did they learn faster than the other animals, but their motor skills improved as well.
Spinarh. Spinach is loaded with an array of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds that research has shown to slow brain aging and preserve memory. It's one of the few food sources of the powerful, brain-protecting antioxidant alpha lipoic acid.
Tumeric. Tumeric's reputation as a "super-spice" is due largely to its anti-cancer activity and powerful anti-inflammatory properties -- but it also helps to protect your brain. This spice first attracted the interest of scientists investigating Alzheimer's disease because rates of the disease are so low in India, where curry is a staple. A compound in tumeric called curcumin helps to prevent mental decline in laboratory animals.
Fish and Fish Oil. Your grandmother was right -- fish is indeed brain food! Over 60 percent of your brain by weight is composed of fat, and most of it is the same fat found in fish. The healthy omega-3 fats in fish (and fish oil supplements) are incorporated into cell membranes, making it easier for information from neurotransmitters to get in and out of the cell. Low levels of omega-3 fats have been linked to memory problems as well as depression, ADHD and various other neurological disorders. Best sources: Wild salmon, sardines and cod -- or take fish oil supplements on a daily basis (500mg-3,000mg).
Eggs. Egg yolks are one of nature's richest sources of choline, a B vitamin that is one of the most important nutrients for brain health. Choline is a building block of the valuable neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is vital for memory, learning and thinking. This vitamin is particularly important during pregnancy because it's essential for the brain development in the fetus. The choline in egg yolks helps maintain the flexibility of brain cell membranes, which is critical for the quick transmission of thoughts and impulses.
Acetyl-L-carnitine. Acetyl-L-Carnitine is a supplement that just may be a fountain of youth for your brain. It seems to delay the onset of age-related cognitive decline and improve overall cognitive function in the elderly. It also protects the brain from damage due to poor circulation and helps to repair injured nerve cells. Research shows that after three months of using recommended doses of Acetyl-L-Carnitine (500mg-1,500mg daily), there's a marked improvement in general cognitive function.
Phosphatidyl Serine. Phosphatidyl Serine (PS), a naturally occurring nutrient found in cell membranes, is highly concentrated in the brain. Several studies have shown that PS helps to restore brain function and improve learning and concentration. Our brain health depends on PS for a number of important metabolic effects, as this it makes it possible for nutrients to move freely in and out of the brain cells. Note: To get the benefit of this supplement, take it with fish oil or with a serving of fatty fish such as salmon or sardines.
Ginko Biloba. Several research studies on this famous herb have revealed that it has a positive effect on thinking. Not only has ginkgo extract been shown to reduce the progress of dementia or the severity of its symptoms, but it also modestly improves both memory and the speed of cognitive functioning. The extract of the leaves from the ginkgo plant contain compounds called glycosides and terpenoids which are believed to have memory-enhancing properties. Most importantly, ginkgo improves circulation to the tissues, notably the brain, and its powerful antioxidant action protects against memory-robbing cell damage from free radicals.
Exercise. Exercise is crucial for both mind and body
health. It reduces levels of a stress hormone called cortisol, which
when elevated, can shrink the hippocampus, the part of the brain
responsible for memory and learning. Studies show that exercise may
help prevent Alzheimer's or dementia, or at the very least,
significantly delay its onset. Exercise also releases chemicals that
increase the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor),
which has been called "Miracle Gro for the Brain". Recent research at
the University of Illinois shows that the brains of healthy but
sedentary individuals ages 60 to 80 years old actually increased in
size after exercising aerobically for 45 to 60 minutes, 3 days a week
at a moderate clip -- both the white matter and the grey matter
increased in volume!