Where did I leave my keys? What is her name again? The word is on the tip of my tongue . . . just give me a second.
Forgetfulness happens. Everyone has moments in which memory fails them, but people often feel their memory is deteriorating more quickly as they age. Mistakes they might have laughed off when they were younger now cause them concern.
Mental processing can decline over time due to certain normal biological changes in the brain. It might take longer to learn new information and to remember it later. However, significant memory loss is not an inevitable consequence of aging. In fact, it is often the belief in this myth that keeps many people from even trying to remember things. So what is “nobrainrmal” forgetfulness, and when is it time to worry about your memory?
Normal age-related memory changes can be frustrating, but they are occasional, and they don’t severely affect your life. Here are some examples of normal memory glitches, from the National Institute on Aging:
- Forgetting where you left things, such as glasses or cell phone
- Substituting one loved one’s name for another’s
- Forgetting the details of something you just read
- Forgetting why you walked into a room
- Becoming more distracted
In contrast, dementia (such as that caused by Alzheimer’s disease) includes significant memory loss along with other symptoms, like increased confusion or disorientation. It interferes with your ability to function independently. Examples include:
- Difficulty performing tasks you’ve done for years, such as preparing a simple meal, paying bills or taking care of your hygiene
- Inability to follow directions while walking or driving, or becoming lost and confused in familiar settings
- Frequently forgetting or misusing words, or having words come out garbled
- Repeating sentences over and over while telling the same story
- Having difficulty making choices that you used to make easily
- Displaying poor judgment or socially inappropriate behavior
One important difference between normal memory change and dementia is how aware you are of the problem. If you can identify and describe instances in which your memory failed you, it is often normal forgetfulness. If you can’t, it may be a warning sign of dementia. It’s also important to remember that one sign or symptom alone does not indicate a significant problem, but if friends or family are concerned, it may be time to consult your physician.
What can you do to prevent even normal age-related memory loss and boost your brainpower? Build these simple activities into every day to keep your brain (and your body) healthy:
- Staying active both physically and mentally is important for brain health. Physical activity helps the brain by keeping blood flowing and increasing chemicals that protect the brain. It counters some of the reduction in brain connections that occur as a part of aging, according to the Mayo Clinic. A study in the October 2010 issue of the journal Neurology indicated that walking six to nine miles per week during middle age can prevent brain shrinkage and memory loss later in life. Other types of exercise are great, too—particularly free-form dancing, where quick decisions keep you, and your brain, on your toes, according to a June 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.
- Make healthy choices. A study in the August 2008 issue of Neurology found that eating good foods, including fruits and vegetables, nuts and meats rich in omega-3 fats at least three times per week could help prevent memory loss and stroke.
- Teach an old dog new tricks. Try new activities like Sudoku, online brain teasers or crossword puzzles. Learn new recipes or a foreign language, and try a new driving route.
- Read, read, read. Read anything, but particularly things that challenge your brain. Quiz yourself later on what you read.
- Enjoy your hobbies. Play games, participate in computer activities and do crafts such as pottery or quilting. People who engage in these types of activities are 30 to 50 percent less at risk of developing memory loss compared to people who do not, according to a study presented by Yonas Geda, MD, a Mayo Clinic neuropsychiatrist, at the American Academy of Neurology’s Annual Meeting in Seattle in 2009.
- Turn off the TV. The same study found that people who watched more than seven hours a day of television in later years were 50 percent more likely to develop memory loss than people who watched less than seven hours a day.
- Stay social. Additionally, the study found that people who engage in social activities in middle age are 40 percent less likely to develop mild cognitive impairment than those who did not participate in those activities.
- Tackle a project. Design and plan projects for your home, take responsibility for a volunteer project or choose an in-depth subject to learn more about.
The rule of thumb when it comes to your memory and overall brain health, is use it or lose it. The younger you are when you focus on engaging your brain, and the more often you seek mental stimulation, the lower the risk of developing memory impairment later in life.