Regular readers know that I have had several members of my family, or both sides, suffer from dementia in general or Alzheimer’s in particular. So, being a guy in his late 70’s I am particularly sensitive to any kind of cognitive kinks that I may be experiencing. I don’t know if it is my imagination or there are simply more people coming on board the cognitive improvement movement. Herewith, Harvard Healthbeat on tips for strengthening your memory.
Your daily habits and lifestyle — what you eat and drink, whether you exercise, how stressed you are, and more — affect your mental health every bit as much as your physical health. A growing body of research indicates that regular exercise and a healthful diet can help protect your memory from aging-related decline. (my emphasis)
Physical fitness and mental fitness go together. People who exercise regularly tend to stay mentally sharp into their 70s, 80s, and beyond. Although the precise “dose” of exercise isn’t known, research suggests that the exercise should be moderate to vigorous and regular. Examples of moderate exercise include brisk walking, stationary bicycling, water aerobics, and competitive table tennis. Vigorous activities include jogging, high-impact aerobic dancing, square dancing, and tennis.
Exercise helps memory in several ways. It reduces the risk of developing several potentially memory-robbing conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Exercise is good for the lungs, and people who have good lung function send more oxygen to their brains. There is some evidence that exercise helps build new connections between brain cells and improves communication between them. Finally, exercise has been linked to increased production of neurotrophins, substances that nourish brain cells and help protect them against damage from stroke and other injuries.
Here are some ways to build physical activity into your daily routine:
Walk instead of driving when possible.
Set aside time each day for exercise. For extra motivation, ask your spouse or a friend to join you.
Use the stairs instead of the elevator.
Plant a garden and tend it.
Take an exercise class or join a health club.
Swim regularly, if you have access to a pool or beach.
Learn a sport that requires modest physical exertion, such as tennis.
Please check out my Page – Important facts about your brain (and exercise benefits) to read further on this. important subject.
Mediterranean-type diets highlight whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats from fish, nuts, and healthy oils. This eating style helps promote heart health and may also lessen the risk of memory and thinking problems later in life. In a study that followed more than 2,000 people over four years, those who most closely followed a Mediterranean-type diet had a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A later study suggested that following a Mediterranean-type diet could slow the conversion of mild cognitive impairment into full-blown dementia.
The types of fat that predominate in the diet also seem to affect memory. As part of the national Women’s Health Initiative, 482 women ages 60 and older were observed for three years. They reported on their diets, and researchers tested their memory and thinking skills at the beginning of the study and at the end. Those who ate more unsaturated fat (which is abundant in vegetable oils and fatty fish) and less saturated fat (from red meat and full-fat dairy foods) had significantly less decline in memory than those who ate relatively little unsaturated fat.
Eating several servings of fruits and vegetables can also protect memory. Foods from plants are chock full of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that may protect against age-related deterioration throughout the body.
Regardless of age, you’re unlikely to have a flawless memory. People who can remember very long lists of numbers or recall the minutiae of their daily lives — right down to what they ate for lunch every day last year—are exceedingly rare. And frankly, such a memory can be a burden rather than a blessing. Memory, it seems, is inherently flawed—and in more ways than you might think.
Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, described the most common ways that normal memory fails us in his book The Seven Sins of Memory. Some of these memory flaws become more pronounced with age, but unless they are extreme and persistent, they are not considered indicators of Alzheimer’s or other memory-impairing illnesses. They are simply the way that our brains work. The following is a brief summary of two of Schacter’s seven memory “sins.”
This is the tendency to forget facts or events over time. You are most likely to forget information soon after you learn it. However, memory has a use-it-or lose-it quality: memories that are called up and used frequently are less likely to be forgotten. Although transience might seem like a sign of memory weakness, brain scientists regard it as beneficial because it clears the brain of unused memories, making way for newer, more useful ones. In this sense, transience is akin to cleaning the junk out of your closets or clearing the temporary files from your computer’s hard drive. (my emphasis)
Although everyone experiences transience of memory, it is extreme and debilitating in people with certain kinds of brain damage. For instance, people with amnesia that is caused by injury to the hippocampus have normal short-term memory, but they are unable to form new long-term memories. They forget information soon after they learn it. This is not the type of transience that normally affects people’s memories.
This type of forgetting occurs when you don’t pay close enough attention to the information you want to remember. You forget where you just put your pen because you weren’t focusing on where you placed it. You were thinking of something else (or, perhaps, nothing in particular), so your brain didn’t encode the information securely. Absentmindedness also involves forgetting to do something at a prescribed time, like taking your medicine or keeping an appointment.
One way to avoid this problem is to identify things that can serve as cues to remind you to do something. For example, if the doctor tells you to take your medicine at bedtime, you might use another regular bedtime activity as a reminder cue for medicine-taking. In this situation, you could link it to rinsing after tooth brushing, and use the same water glass to sip water to take your pills. Similarly, if you need to take your vitamins at breakfast, you could make a habit of putting the bottle beside your coffee cup at your place at the table so it provides a cue when you sit down to eat.
One final personal suggestion. As I am in my late 70’s, I have certainly suffered from this problem. My solution is to pay attention to what I am doing. If I am putting my car keys down somewhere, I make a mental note that I have just put my car keys down on the dresser. That way, when I need them, I will know to go directly to the dresser to retrieve them. I take absentmindedness literally. I try to keep my mind focused when I do something like that.
To learn more about the differences between normal memory loss and symptoms of something more serious, you can order the Special Health Report, Improving Memory, from Harvard Medical School.