First, you neglect to change the engine oil. A few years later, you forget the car keys. At middle age (or earlier!), you regularly can’t recall where the car is parked. Unfortunately, memory loss begins in your 20s and erodes steadily with age, much like athletic performance.
“You may have someone who was a marathon runner all his life, but he is likely not going to run as fast when he is 75 years old as when he was 25 years old,”
says Molly Wagster, Ph.D., chief of the Neuropsychology of Aging branch of the National Institute of Aging.
The good news is there’s much we can do to preserve memory. But because the field of memory preservation is so new, doctors recommend weighing some advice more heavily than others.
Green light – Steps you should take:
- Get moving: Regular exercise pumps your heart and lifts your mood. It also sharpens your brain. University of Illinois researchers found that older adults who walked several times a week had better thinking abilities than their couch-potato counterparts. The aerobic group improved in “executive function” – the ability to move from task to task and think abstractly. A sedentary lifestyle has also been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Quit smoking: Smoking increases your risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, research says. It also steps up the likelihood of cardiovascular disease and stroke, which can contribute to memory loss.
- Lose weight: While not a known cause of memory loss itself, obesity is linked to sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Hypertension may damage the brain’s white matter, the bundles of axons that send messages through the nervous system. Untreated diabetes – with high levels of insulin – is also thought to promote Alzheimer’s disease.
- Treat depression and connect with friends and family: “There have been noted links between experiencing depression and declines in cognitive function,” memory researcher Wagster says. So treat depression, whether through psychotherapy, yoga, meditation or pharmaceuticals. On the other hand, social engagement goes hand in hand with mental stimulation. A MacArthur Foundation study correlated social support – close ties to others – with better mental and cognitive health in seniors.
- Use it or lose it: Doing crosswords, learning a language, even dancing builds “cognitive reserve,” says Dr. C. Alan Anderson, a faculty member in the neurology department of the University of Colorado School of Medicine. Challenging activities force the brain to make new connections and preserve old ones. But watching the Discovery Channel or PBS doesn’t count. “It has to be something that people work at. It can’t be passive,” Anderson adds.
- Eat all colors of the rainbow: A diet rich in vitamin B can improve your brain’s function. But supplements aren’t necessary, doctors say, because people can get enough B vitamins if they eat whole grains, green leafy vegetables and dairy foods.
Yellow light – Proceed with caution:
- Ginkgo Biloba: Studies have found a loose connection between taking the supplement and staving off Alzheimer’s disease. But there’s no evidence Ginkgo fights ordinary memory loss. Further tests are underway.
- Drink in moderation: Drinking a glass of wine a day (but not more) has been correlated with a reduced risk of dementia. For heavy drinkers, cutting back consumption actually prevents further memory loss.
Red light – Not without medical advice:
- Hormone therapy: Doctors and women have for years wondered about the role of estrogen in memory loss because women report memory declines after menopause – when levels of sex hormone fall. But studies in recent studies found estrogen therapy alone, and estrogen/progestin therapy, not only failed to improve memory in older women, it increase their risk of dementia (along with heart attack, stroke and cancer). Without further research, hormone replacement therapy should be taken with strict caution.