Remember, Memory Loss is Not Inevitable and Can Be Reduced or Limited

Word on the tip of your tongue? Misplaced your keys or glasses again?  Mixing up your kids’ names when you talk about them? If you recognize any of these behaviors, you can probably relax; they all are common memory lapses that increase when we’re tired, stressed, overworked, and as we age. Who hasn’t walked into a room, gotten distracted, and returned to our previous location without the book, phone number, file or other item we originally went searching for? Forgetfulness, distraction, and memory are affected by time and by what’s going on in our lives. But there are a number of steps we can practice to improve and strengthen our memory and warning signs we should heed that could point to a more severe memory problem, such as Alzheimer’s or dementia.

As we grow older, we experience physiological changes that can cause glitches in brain functions we’ve always taken for granted. It takes longer to learn and recall information. We’re not as quick as we used to be. In fact, we often mistake this slowing of our mental processes for true memory loss. But in most cases, if we give ourselves time, the information will come to mind.

The first step to staying mentally sharp as we age is to understand the difference between normal forgetfulness and serious memory problems. The brain is capable of producing new brain cells at any age, so significant memory loss is not an inevitable result of aging. But just as it is with muscle strength, we have to “use it or lose it.” Our lifestyle, health habits, and daily activities have a huge impact on the health of our brain.

It’s important to be aware of ways that our health, environment, and lifestyle may contribute to memory loss. Sometimes, even what looks like significant memory loss can be caused by treatable conditions and reversible external factors. Examples include:

  • Medication side effects. Many prescribed and over-the-counter drugs or combinations of drugs can cause cognitive problems and memory loss as a side effect.
  • Depression. Depression can mimic the signs of memory loss, making it hard for us to concentrate, stay organized, remember things, and get things done.
  • Vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 protects neurons and is vital to healthy brain functioning.
  • Thyroid problems. Thyroid problems can cause memory problems such as forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. Medication can reverse the symptoms.
  • Alcohol abuse. Excessive alcohol intake is toxic to brain cells, and alcohol abuse leads to memory loss.
  • Dehydration. Severe dehydration can cause confusion, drowsiness, memory loss, and other symptoms that look like dementia.

Preventing memory loss and mental decline

Just as physical exercise can make and keep your body stronger, mental exercise can make your brain work better and lower the risk of mental decline. Try to find brain exercises that you find enjoyable. The more pleasurable an activity is to you, the more powerful its effect will be on your brain. You can make some activities more enjoyable by appealing to your senses, such as by playing music during the exercise, or lighting a scented candle, or rewarding yourself after you’ve finished. Play games that involve strategy, like Chess or Scrabble, crossword and number puzzles. Read newspapers, magazines and books. Challenge yourself by playing a musical instrument or learning new recipes or a foreign language. The more you exercise your brain, the more you’ll continue learning and strengthening your brain at the same time.

Additionally, the same practices that contribute to healthy aging and physical vitality also contribute to healthy memory.

  • Exercise regularly. Regular exercise boosts brain growth factors and encourages the development of new brain cells.
  • Stay social. People who don’t have social contact with family and friends are at higher risk for memory problems than people who have strong social ties.
  • Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fats. Antioxidants, found in abundance in fresh produce, literally keep our brain cells from “rusting.” And foods rich in omega-3 fats, such as salmon, tuna, trout, walnuts, and flaxseed, are particularly good for our brain and memory.
  • Manage stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, damages the brain over time and can lead to memory problems.
  • Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is necessary for memory consolidation, the process of forming and storing new memories so we can retrieve them later. Sleep deprivation also reduces the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus and causes problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making
  • Don’t smoke. Smoking heightens the risk of vascular disorders that can cause stroke and constrict arteries that deliver oxygen to the brain.

When to worry

The primary difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that the former isn’t disabling—the memory lapses have little impact on our daily performance and ability to do what we want to do. When memory loss becomes so pervasive and severe that it disrupts our work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, we may be experiencing the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, another disorder that causes dementia, or a condition that mimics dementia.

Symptoms that are reasons for concern include difficulty performing simple tasks, such as paying bills or dressing, or forgetting things you’ve done many times; getting lost or disoriented in familiar places; frequently forgetting common words, and constantly repeating phrases or stories; and trouble in judgment, when making choices, or socially inappropriate behaviors that never existed in the past. If you or someone close to you is exhibiting any of these behaviors, you should consult with a physician.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!