4 Ways to Prevent Memory Loss
When it comes to aging and memory loss, there’s bad news and there’s good news.
The bad news...
Memory loss is a normal and inevitable part of aging. It can take hold as early as one’s 30s, and is entirely common by the time one reaches their 50s, 60s and beyond. Virtua neurologist Carole Thomas, MD, concurs: “As I tell every one of my patients—unlike fine wine, memory does not get better with age.”
The good news...
There’s a lot that can be done to prevent and sometimes even reverse the effects of aging on memory and overall brain health. What’s more, memory loss is not automatically a sign of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
There are several reasons why memory deteriorates as one ages. Some are biological—it’s just a fact that as the brain gets older, its cells deteriorate. But other reasons have to do with lifestyle changes. “I often have patients in their late 50s, early 60s, come into my office convinced that they have the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Thomas. “Often what’s really happened is they’ve recently retired, and they’re no longer mentally active every single day in the way that they were used to all their lives.”
So, what about losing keys, forgetting appointments, and going into a room to get something and suddenly forgetting what it was? “I’m in my early 50s, and these are all things that happen to me,” says Dr. Thomas. “These are all typical signs of normal memory loss, not dementia.”
And while there isn’t conclusive evidence that keeping mentally active will prevent the onset of a disease like dementia, there are studies and strong anecdotal evidence that indicate mental exercises can strengthen the brain and enhance mental sharpness as one ages.
Engaging in activities that are new or challenging—think crossword puzzles, learning a new language, interacting with new people, reading—can go far in improving brain heath. “There’s also a whole industry of games built up around these exercises. Nintendo has a popular game with different brain teasers and so on. If that’s something you like to do, go for it,” says Dr. Thomas. “There may not be hard evidence at this time that it definitely helps, but it certainly can’t hurt.”
Other ways to keep the brain strong
- Physical exercise is a big one
“Studies have shown conclusively that people who exercise regularly have a better level of mental functioning,” says Dr. Thomas.
- Diet and overall health are also key
“Keeping your body healthy is going to keep your brain healthy and functioning in the best possible way. If you have a lot of medical issues—heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol—that’s going to affect your memory. It’s important to keep this under control with diet, exercise, and medications prescribed by your doctor,” advises Dr. Thomas.
- Aim to keep stress levels low, and address any emotional health problems
People who struggle with anxiety and/or depression will often find they have trouble with their memory. These problems may appear similar to, but are essentially unlike, memory loss associated with aging. Instead, stress, anxiety and depression cause memory issues associated with concentration—meaning information is not properly stored in the first place, and will thus be impossible to recall later on.
- Make sure to get enough sleep
“How you function mentally has a lot to do with how you sleep,” says Dr. Thomas. Recent studies have also linked sleep apnea—a condition that causes you to temporarily stop breathing during sleep—to problems with mental acuity and a host of other physical ailments. Snorers or those whose partners have indicated suspicion of such a problem should see a doctor.
How do you tell the difference between normal memory loss and dementia?
Red flags for possible dementia include getting lost while driving to a familiar place, forgetting the names of friends or family members, or suddenly being reprimanded at work because of failure to complete one’s tasks.
“The majority of people who come into my office worried that they have dementia don’t have it,” says Dr. Thomas. “But if memory issues are starting to affect your daily functioning, that’s not normal. That’s when you need to see a doctor.”
Updated June 23, 2016