With all the talk of brain health and growing focus on the prevention of age-related neurological disorders, even the most innocent of senior moments (god, we hate that phrase) can be scary — often leading down an internet rabbit hole and resulting in self-diagnosis of a devastating disease. But rest assured that while you may be losing your mind with worry every time you blank on someone’s name, you probably aren’t literally losing your mind.
Why Is This Happening?
The brain is an organ and, like the rest of your organs, it ages and gradually deteriorates over time.
“There is a slowdown in your processing speed,” explains Dr. Alicia Parker, assistant professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas. “Your recall ability declines, which is why you may have a difficult time remembering names, especially of people you don’t often see.”
What Can I Do?
Before you resign yourself to a life of double-checking the oven to make sure you turned it off, you should know that there is good news and bad news.
The bad news? You can’t stop the brain’s aging process. The good news? You can slow it down. How? Dr. Parker says that there is plenty of evidence to support the benefits of mental and physical activity on the brain. Just 30 minutes of aerobic activity at least five times a week can get the heart pumping and the blood flowing to the brain. A diet high in vegetables and lean protein, along with eating fish a couple of times per week has been shown to help as well. “Eating fish works to slow down memory change more than simply taking omega-3 supplements,” says Parker. “Those are not FDA approved, so the amount of omega-3 you are getting might not be the same as what it says on the bottle. It’s better just to eat the fish.”
And though many people are quick to point fingers at technology and multitasking for the shift in memory function, Parker says the opposite may be true. “Using your smartphone requires you to use quite a few areas of your brain,” she says. “And it’s always good to be socially active and communicate with people to stimulate your brain, whether it’s face-to-face or online.” Even playing online games can help, as can crosswords, Sudoku, and other puzzles or word challenges. “These are all good ways to keep your brain challenged,” assures Parker.
When Is It Not Normal?
Forgetting a name is one thing. Forgetting entire conversations or how to get to your neighborhood grocery store is another. These could be indicators of a larger issue and should be checked out by your physician. “This type of trouble with short-term memory or navigation can be an Alzheimer’s-type pattern,” Parker says.
That sounds scary, but don’t let fear prevent you from mentioning it to your doctor; early detection can make a big difference in the efficacy of treatment. Parker explains that Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease that causes slow changes over time. Therefore, the earlier you are diagnosed, the more effective the treatment can be in stabilizing changes in the brain.
Although Alzheimer’s and similar diseases are the biggest concerns for many people, there are several, less-threatening causes for memory changes, and most are easily treatable. Some medications, for example, can affect attention and concentration. So can hormonal fluctuations associated with menopause or thyroid issues. Another culprit? Sleep apnea. “If you are snoring a lot at night, the air is not getting into the body easily and you are not getting enough oxygen to the brain,” Parker says. “That can affect how your brain functions during the day.”
The bottom line? All memory changes should be discussed with your doctor. Chances are, it’s nothing to worry about — but when it comes to your health it’s best to be proactive.