Eavesdrop on any conversation between a group of middle-aged people and it’s likely that the subject of memory will come up. Often, this is in the form of forgetting the name of a longtime acquaintance.
Or the time you temporarily blanked out your destination while driving down the street — grateful that a split second later it comes to you; oh, yes, I’m headed to the grocery store. Or, it could be the time you went down to the basement and then wondered “Why exactly am I here again?”
The fear of a failing memory seems to lurk beneath the surface for many of us. Is this something to be concerned about or is it just a symptom of too much multi-tasking?
A growing number of the middle-aged population has or will experience aging parents and other relatives succumb to some form of dementia. We worry it will happen to us or our spouse or our friends. We notice little things and we wonder. It’s common to feel hopeless and helpless as our bodies and brains age.
A sobering fact: Over 4 million people currently have Alzheimer’s disease, and by the year 2050, experts estimate there will be over 14 million Americans with the disease.
So what, if anything, can we do about it?
While it’s true that there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, there are in fact some things we can do to affect how our brain ages — and there is some hope for new treatments on the horizon.
Having watched my father go through the stages of Alzheimer’s, and now approaching my sixth decade, I started to do some research of my own into what can be done to preserve a healthy mind. As the saying goes, “knowledge is power.”
In addition to doing a lot of reading on the subject, I attended a continuing-education seminar aptly titled “Remembering, Forgetting and Protecting the Aging Brain.” The presenter was a neurobiologist from the Boston University School of Medicine and I was eager to hear what he had to say.
At the beginning of the lecture, the speaker asked the audience, “Who here is worried about their memory?” Everyone in the room raised their hands.
Not wanting to “forget” anything, I took extensive notes during the lecture and learned that there are many research-based insights on memory function and lifestyle changes that are well worth considering.
First, some basic brain-function facts for the biology nerd in all of us. There are five domains of cognitive function: attention, language, visuo-spatial function, executive function and language. Often, when we worry about forgetting names, it is a function of language, not memory. We remember the person; we just can’t “find” the name.
Ever notice that once you give up trying, the name pops into your head? Turns out, our brains keep working, even when we call it quits.
Executive function is the most sensitive of the five domains and the first to show up as a problem in a neurological disease. It’s also the least specific to identify, which is why diagnosing dementia is not one-stop shopping — it involves several specialists and cannot be diagnosed quickly or based on a just few symptoms. So we should resist the urge to self-diagnose when we find ourselves searching frantically for our sunglasses that are perched upon our head.
The good news is that lifestyle choices can play a big role in brain health. Exercise, diet, sleep and dental hygiene all affect memory function. For example, Americans get six-and-a-half hours of sleep on average, even though most people require eight for proper functioning. Sleep deficit can lead to depression and anxiety, while chronic insomnia can increase the risk for depression by five times.
Poor sleep has also been linked to Alzheimer’s. Some scientists believe that toxic molecules are cleared from the brain while we are sleeping. Sound sleep also seems to blunt the effect of a gene (APOE-E4) that predisposes the development of Alzheimer’s. So make sleep a priority and you’ll not only feel rested, you’ll be doing your memory a favor.
I was surprised to learn that dental hygiene can impact brain function, as gum infections can cause infections in the nerves that lead to the brain. Yet another good reason to brush, floss and visit your dentist regularly.
Most of us know that a healthy diet and regular exercise have health benefits — but may be surprised that they also slowing brain aging. In fact, a diet rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods such as blueberries, dark chocolate, ginger, curcumin, green tea and even coffee has been shown to slow down the aging process. And there are a lot of other foods out there that make these claims.
So take that walk, sign up for a yoga class and eat more foods that don’t come in a box. This is all easier said than done — but healthy habits do get easier to follow over time and will pay off in the long run.
And then there’s stress, which plays a huge factor in aging and health due to the release of cortisol. Too much of this hormone leads to a reduction in the size of the hippocampus — an area of the brain important to memory.
Stress increases heart and breathing rate, which kicks off the “fight or flight” reaction and suppresses the immune system, wreaking havoc on our body and our mind. While it’s impossible to completely eliminate stress from our lives, there are things we can do to reduce it — such as exercise, meditation and seeking professional help.
A final piece of advice for positive brain health is not that hard to follow. Research has shown that factors influencing healthy brain aging include socialization, continuous learning and mindfulness — otherwise known “living in the present.”
So spend time with others, do a crossword puzzle or learn a new skill, and your brain will thank you!
Many of us worry about memory loss as we age. I personally feel better knowing that there are lifestyle choices I can make that will improve my brain health and my overall quality of life. It’s worth making the effort to preserve a healthy mind and the memories that go along with it.
Peggy Prichard is a Champaign native and 1981 Central High grad. Married to Joel Prichard since 1990, the mother of two retired in June and now works part-time as a marketing consultant and freelance writer. To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org.