If you’re over 40 and it seems like you’re misplacing keys or forgetting names more frequently than you used to, you’re not alone. You may even respond to these annoying episodes with a nervous laugh and a self-deprecating comment about your “senior moment,” but trust me, if they start happening enough you’ll soon begin to wonder about your memory.
And why wouldn’t you? After all, we’re all within six degrees of knowing someone whose life has been affected by dementia or Alzheimer’s. It ain’t fun. Being unable to recall the characters and details of our own lives, being unable to access the memories that make us who we are feels, to many of us, like a fate considerably worse than death.
So how exactly does this thing called “memory” work? And what can we do to protect it?
Memory actually comes in three flavors: Sensory, short-term, and long-term. Sensory memory is built (no surprise here) on sensation: the feeling of a snowflake on your face or the warmth of snuggling under a down comforter by a fireplace. Short-term memory, also known as working memory, is what you use when you remember a phone number you just heard long enough to actually dial it, but you’ll probably forget it a minute later—you’re basically storing data on the mental equivalent of a clipboard in your word processing program rather than on a document in your hard drive. When we talk about memory loss, most of the time we’re talking about this short-term memory.
Long-term memory, on the other hand, is the stuff of which personalities are made. These are the documents on your hard drive. Even people with impaired short-term memory often can access long-term memories quite well. They may not remember what they had for breakfast this morning, but they can tell you what they loved to eat as a child.
Our memory is facilitated by brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. (“Neuro” means brain while “transmit” means, well, transmitting.) Neurotransmitters are the brain’s own way of instant messaging, only faster. They transmit messages of emotion, thought, and action; they’re pretty much involved in everything you think, feel, or do. The brain needs a combination of specific nutrients to nourish it. Prime among them are omega-3 fats, which help make sure that neurotransmitters get their messages to the right “mailboxes.” It’s hard to imagine an undernourished, unhealthy brain being the site of a sharp, quick memory. That’s why omega-3s are the first thing I think of when I think of a supplement for all-around brain health.
Memory is affected by a lot of factors. For example, drinking water—getting a good five or more glasses a day is a good idea. Even a small amount of dehydration can impact your working memory as well as other aspects of mental and physical performance. And it’s amazing the number of ordinary, common drugs that can affect brain function, and memory specifically. Sleeping pills, antihistamines, blood pressure medications, arthritis medications, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, and—not surprisingly—painkillers are all prime examples.
Memory loss also shares a number of characteristics with depression. It’s fairly accepted right now that serotonin—an important neurotransmitter—is deeply involved in depression, but serotonin also plays a big part in memory. Assuming the serotonin-depression link is correct, a person who’s depressed because of low serotonin levels might well have memory problems as well.
Finally, one of the ultimate memory killers is stress. (Remember that time in high school during final exams when you couldn’t remember some simple fact you knew as well as your own name?) So is lack of sleep, a tremendous stressor in its own right. The prime stress hormone—cortisol—literally shrinks a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is critical to memory and thinking. Along with exercise and drinking lots of water, stress reduction may be one of the most effective “memory-enhancement” techniques we know of! And stress hormones also interfere with the action of neurotransmitters, whose functioning—as we saw earlier—is vital to memory as well.
Fortunately, our body makes neurotransmitters just fine, thank you very much, as long as we feed it—through good food and supplementation—the nutrients it needs to do so. Vitamin B12, for example, protects neurons (nerve cells in the brain), and is absolutely vital to healthy brain functioning. But vitamin B12 is less well-absorbed as we get older, due to declining amounts of stomach acid and intrinsic factor, a biochemical necessary for B12 absorption. In addition, many people avoid some of the best food sources of vitamin B12 (like meat). Vegetarians are at great risk for B12 deficiency and vegans are virtually guaranteed to be deficient. (Don’t shoot the messenger, my vegan friends. It’s the truth. There just isn’t any absorbable B12 in plant foods.)
When it comes to your memory, diet matters. Fats like omega-3s are incorporated into the cell membranes, making it easier for information to “flow” in and out of the cell and making it easier for cells to communicate with each other. Proteins break down into amino acids, which in turn create the brain chemicals that are critical for focus and memory. Meanwhile, vegetables and fruits—the “good” carbs—provide a ton of antioxidants that can protect against diseases and age-related deterioration throughout the body.
Blueberries are one of the best “memory” foods on the planet. In a Harvard study, it was found that diets rich in berries can delay memory decline in older women by 2 ½ years. Other research has confirmed the memory-preserving properties of blueberries, probably due to their high concentration of antioxidants known as anthocyanins.
Wild salmon is one of the best sources of omega-3s on the planet. And flaxseed is an excellent way to boost your omega-3 intake as well. Barlean’s Forti-Flax is a great way to get flaxseeds into your diet. You can sprinkle them on everything from cereal to veggies to salads.
Sleep is essential for memory consolidation, and most of us just don’t get enough of it. Though many people function quite well on six good hours a night—myself included—others do much better with seven or eight. Even more important than the total number of hours is the quality of sleep. Keep the room cool, the television and computers off, and make the bedroom a quiet place for rest, relaxation, and fun—not for work!
Physical fitness and mental fitness—which includes a sharp memory—go hand in hand. Physical exercise increases the amount of oxygen that goes to your brain and enhances the action of neurotransmitters. And you don’t need to be an Ironman triathelete to get the memory-enhancing benefits of exercise. Research by Arthur Kramer at the University of Illinois shows that even brisk daily walking of 30-45 minutes can grow new brain cells and improve memory and cognition.
Memory is like a muscle—you either use it or you lose it. The more you “work out” your brain, the better you’ll be able to remember (and process) information. The best brain exercising activities break your routine and challenge you to develop new brain pathways. So stimulating your brain can actually help prevent memory loss. Read, do crossword puzzles or Sudoku, or play computer games like Free Cell Solitaire, Bejeweled, and Shape Shifter. Some video games, like Brain Age, have been specifically created to stimulate the brain.
All of the antioxidants are important for memory. They protect brain tissue by running interference against free radicals, rogue molecules that can impair the functioning of neurons in the brain. Outstanding examples of powerful antioxidants are vitamins C, E, and the super-antioxidant, astaxanthin (found in wild salmon, and available as a supplement).
The aforementioned omega-3s are equally important. They help protect the brain against inflammation, which is implicated in every disease of aging including memory loss.
Huperzine A is an extract of the Chinese moss Huperzia serrata, and has been found in some studies to help fight mild age-related memory loss. Acetyl L-Carnitine helps the brain form acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter needed for memory and thinking. (Neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, author of The Better Brain Book, describes acetyl-L-carnitine as a “neuronal energizer”!). Phosphatidylserine (PS) has been shown in studies to improve learning and name recall, concentration, face recognition, the ability to remember telephone numbers and the ability to find misplaced objects. And glycerophosphocholine (GPC) is a supplement that has been extensively researched for its effect on mental performance, attention, concentration and memory formation. And while ginkgo biloba is the supplement most associated with memory, studies differ as to its effectiveness for protecting memory. (Some are positive; some, not so much.) Nonetheless, it’s a powerful antioxidant that increases blood flow to all parts of the body, especially the brain. My friend Daniel Amen, MD, has examined over 10,000 pictures of brains using SPECT scans; he once told me, “The healthiest looking brains I’ve ever seen were on ginkgo.”
Look, no one wants to lose their memory. But following the basic advice for healthy living—daily exercise, a healthy diet, brain-challenging activities, social connection, and smart supplementation—definitely boosts the odds that you won’t.
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