Although all of us desire longevity, at the same time one of our greatest fears is any decline in our mental powers. One day, you might wander through your home, forgetting what you were looking for. Or you might finish a book and the next morning can barely remember the plot. You miss appointments unless you write them down. Friends and family members comment on your forgetfulness. With a chill of horror, you think, “Alzheimer’s disease!” Actually, this is very unlikely. You’ve just not been paying attention to your brain health. This has a name, “cognitive decline,” a description of what you’re experiencing, rather than an actual disease.
Unfortunately, conventional physicians aren’t taught what can be done to preserve brain functioning. When a patient is concerned about failing intellectual skills, once Alzheimer’s disease or any physical illness is ruled out, most patients receive the dubious reassurance that the changes are just part of growing old.
Let’s see how our WholeHealth Chicago integrated approach can help halt and even reverse this situation.
What is Memory Loss/Impairment?
Mild memory lapses–forgetting where the car keys are or struggling to attach a name to a familiar face–are normal at any age, but tend to become more frequent as people grow older. Such lapses are usually not a cause for concern, yet they often give rise to worry about Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of irreversible dementia (a marked intellectual decline or impairment that persists over time). It’s worth knowing, however, that only a very small percentage of people over age 65 develop Alzheimer’s and that age-related forgetfulness is often preventable or reversible. In fact, fretting about a memory lapse is considered a positive indication that there is no serious impairment–people with true dementia tend not to be aware of lapses.
Memory is the brain’s ability to store and recollect names, events, information and emotions learned or experienced in the past. For the smooth functioning of memory, the brain requires healthy nerve cells and adequate supplies of blood, nutrients and specialized chemicals called neurotransmitters that play a key role in relaying messages between individual nerve cells. As people age, nerve cells shrink, blood (and therefore nutrient) supplies to the brain may decrease. The brain then produces smaller quantities of neurotransmitters, all of which can result in memory lapses.
Age-associated memory lapses are very common, and while usually not a sign of a serious disorder, they can be frustrating and embarrassing. Fortunately, it is almost never too late to improve your memory skills. Memory-enhancing supplements and physical and mental exercise are among the tools available to sharpen and preserve memory for life.
- Forgetfulness resulting in missed appointments or misplaced objects
- Difficulty remembering names
- Slower recall of recent or past events or details and longer mental searches for particular words or facts
- Lack of concentration and poor mental focus
What Causes Memory Loss/Impairment?
Disabling and totally irreversible memory loss is most often caused by Alzheimer’s disease or stroke. Mild memory lapses, a far more common and benign problem, may be the result of the gradual slowing of mental function that occurs naturally as people grow older. As nerve cells shrink and the production of neurotransmitters declines, communication between nerve cells becomes less smooth and memory may falter.
However, many other factors can cause or aggravate memory loss. By narrowing arteries and restricting the blood supply to the brain, atherosclerosis (the buildup of fatty plaques on arterial walls) plays a major role in memory loss. Excessive alcohol consumption can produce the huge memory gaps known as blackouts.
Head injuries, high fevers, thyroid deficiencies, menopause (and other causes of estrogen loss in women), low blood sugar, poor nutrition, allergies and adverse drug reactions can all trigger short-term memory impairment. Fatigue, stress and depression also play a role in memory lapses, as does self-image in older people. The expectation that memory will decline with age often causes older people to lose confidence in their memory skills.
Treatment and Prevention
Memory problems need not be an inevitable part of the aging process. Staying relaxed, exercising regularly, limiting alcohol intake, controlling blood pressure and cholesterol, and keeping mentally fit and stimulated can play a significant role in memory preservation and enhancement. And supplements, especially the herb ginkgo biloba, the B vitamins, antioxidants and certain amino acids, can help prevent or reverse memory lapses.
If memory lapses do not respond to self-treatment or if they become more severe, then your physician may help you trace the cause of them–first by looking for conditions that are most correctable (for example, memory loss caused by medication). You can also talk to your doctor about several prescription drugs, including hydergine and deprenyl, that can help with memory problems.
Just a reminder: If you have a serious medical condition or are taking medication, it’s always a wise idea to talk with your doctor before beginning a supplement program.
How Supplements Can Help
The herb ginkgo biloba helps improve memory by increasing blood flow to the brain. It is especially beneficial for older people whose arteries may have been narrowed by atherosclerosis. Take ginkgo biloba alone or in combination with huperzine A, an herbal extract that helps maintain healthy levels of acetylcholine, a key neurotransmitter for learning and memory.
Vinpocetine, an extract of the periwinkle plant, has been the subject of considerable scientific research for more than 25 years as a powerful enhancer of memory function.
Coenzyme Q10, also called ubiquinone, does double duty as an antioxidant and is involved in energy reactions throughout the body, especially the heart and the brain.
The B vitamins found in your multivitamin all play important roles in brain and nerve functioning. They need not be taken as separate supplements if you already take a high-potency formula.
The amino acid-like substances acetyl-L-carnitine, phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine are involved in the production of neurotransmitters and may help enhance memory. Also consider taking DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol), a substance that plays a key role in producing the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine. A product called Neuro-Essentials contains many of these amino acid-like substance.
Get supplement dosages and tips in our WholeHealth Chicago Supplement Recommendations for Memory Loss.
People who stay calm and relaxed have better concentration and remember things more easily. Try yoga, meditation, deep breathing and other mind-body techniques to help you relax and reduce stress.
Don’t drink too much alcohol. Its abuse can lead to serious memory problems.
Know your health status. Keep your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels under control. If you’re taking medications, be aware that some of them, including antihypertensive, antihistamine and antianxiety drugs, can cause short-term memory problems.
To prevent a variety of conditions that can impair memory, eat a healthful diet that’s low in fat and cholesterol and high in fiber (fruits, vegetables and whole grains) and omega-3 fatty acids (oily, cold-water fish such as salmon and sardines).
Eat more fish, which has often been called “brain food” and for good reason. The omega-3 essential fatty acids found in fish, especially DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), promote efficient transmittal of electrical signals between nerve cells. DHA also stabilizes and protects against the natural breakdown of cell membranes, a process that can compromise brain cells and nerves. In addition, DHA seems to improve concentration and may help reverse memory loss.
Stay physically active. A regular program of aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain and promotes overall health and well-being.
Stay mentally active. Read, work crossword puzzles, take a course–whatever is necessary to keep the mind interested and alert.
Use physical memory aids, such as a notepad or a voice recorder, as well as mental aids, such as word or image associations and other mnemonic devices. (For example, picture a man named Sam wearing a white beard like “Uncle Sam.”)
When to Call a Doctor
- If memory problems worsen or become more frequent and begin to interfere with daily activities (such as missing appointments or forgetting recent events).
- If you or someone in your care becomes lost or disoriented while walking or driving in a familiar area, has trouble performing once easy tasks, such as cooking a meal or balancing a checkbook, or exhibits personality changes. All of these could be signs of a serious memory disorder.
How to Take the Supplements
I consider a high-potency multivitamin (with its complex of B vitamins), some added vitamins C and E as well as some extra coenzyme Q10, as prerequisites for anyone as they age. These supplements have many benefits throughout the body and are not really unique in the treatment of declining memory. You can then take the remaining supplements individually or in combination.
I suggest you might want to start with three herbs that all appear to prevent mental decline and improve blood flow to the brain. One of the most promising (and well tested) is ginkgo biloba. Although it takes a while (often several months) to take effect, gingko seems to work especially well when combined with huperzine A, an herbal extract of rare club moss imported from China. Huperzine has already been tested for serious memory disorders, but seems to help benign age-related forgetfulness as well. Clinically, I prefer vinpocetine, made from the periwinkle plant, which has shown great promise for memory enhancement and acts much more quickly, usually in two to four weeks.
To restore declining levels of neurotransmitters, use phosphatidylserine (PS), phosphatidylcholine (a nerve-building nutrient) and acetyl-L-carnitine. After age 50, these supplements may slow or reverse memory loss and improve other intellectual functions such as concentration and abstract thought.
If you or your family believe your forgetfulness has become severe, you’ll need to increase your supplement doses considerably. Raise the phosphatidylserine and phosphatidycholine to three times a day, increase the acetyl-L-carnitine to 500 mg three times a day, and add both vinpocetine (believed to enhance oxygen and blood flow to the brain) and DMAE (dimethylaminoethanol, a substance that helps synthesize a neurotransmitter involved in short-term memory storage).
We at WholeHealth Chicago strongly recommend that everyone take a high-potency multivitamin/mineral and well-balanced antioxidant complex every day. It may be necessary to adjust the dosages outlined below to account for your own daily vitamin regimen. All of our supplement recommendations also assume you are eating a healthful diet.
Be aware that certain cautions are associated with taking individual supplements, especially if you have other medical conditions and/or you’re taking medications.
For product recommendations and orders click here for the Natural Apothecary or call 773-296-6700 ext. 2001.