You walk into a room, pause, stare blankly ahead, and ask yourself, “What did I come in here for?” Seeing a familiar face in the theatre lobby, you exchange socially acceptable kindnesses and now the first act is ruined as you wrack your brain trying to remember the person’s name so you don’t embarrass yourself at intermission. You go through the alphabet…Adrian, Ann, B, Barbara?
Or you’ve lost your keys or glasses yet again. Even at work co-workers seem to be swapping eye rolls as they remind you of something for the third, fourth, or fifth time.
If all this happened in your 20s or 30s, you’d write it off to too much going on, the stress of a busy life. Now in your 40s, 50s, and older, you worry a bit. One day you may even show up in your doctor’s office, the dreaded A-word on your trembling lips.
“No, it’s not Alzheimer’s,” I’ll reassure you. “Usually an Alzheimer patient doesn’t think anything’s wrong with her memory. It’s her family who brings her in.”
So, let’s clear the air on this.
The most common cause of mild memory issues is simple inattentiveness. Your brain is clogged with too much junk mail. Example: you walk in your front door. Crossing the threshold, thumbing through your actual junk mail, you put it aside to check your phone at the exact moment you toss your keys somewhere and force yourself into cheerfulness as you greet the cat. Keys? You have now officially “lost” your keys. Fortunately, the cat (like cats everywhere) can fend for herself. Otherwise you’d lose her, too.
Believe me, if you start paying attention to what you’re doing in the moment, telling yourself “Keys, here, on my new key hook. Ah, cat, hello!” Then check your junk mail and your phone a bit later (not simultaneously), a lot of your memory worries will be over.
Now that you’re focused on this Health Tip, it’s true that for some people short-term memory does decline with age. To be sure, not everyone experiences this, and we all know some sharp-as-a-tack 90-year-olds. As politically annoying as my 93-year-old Fox News-addicted aunt can be, her memory amazes me. Two hours after some dumb infomercial, she’ll decide to order the product they were hawking and rattle off the phone number from memory.
For today, let’s set aside the three old-age diseases that are linked to fairly rapid memory loss: Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia (a/k/a hardening of the arteries, multiple small strokes), and the more recently described Lewy Body dementia (Robin Williams had this).
Prevention, as always, is best
You think your memory might be going, but your doctor says not to worry. Not helpful–it’s not his brain in a tailspin. You’re still worrying. Let’s talk prevention. Here’s a checklist that ends with a nutritional supplement that’s showing very impressive results in clinical trials. But please don’t lean on supplements to the exclusion of the other items. They’re all essential.
- Keep your brain active. Avoid sitting slack-jawed in front of the TV for more than a couple hours daily or texting your friends that you’re in the produce aisle at Mariano’s. Read challenging books. Take classes–learn a language, musical instrument, or how to make pottery. Do New York Times crossword puzzles. Play Scrabble or mah jong, and play with friends. Remember the long-lived Greeks with healthy brains? Community interaction is central.
- Stay physically active. Many clinical studies link regular exercise with lifetime four-star brain function. Walk every day, adding some higher-intensity workouts a couple times weekly, like 30-second flat-out sprints on a stationary bike. Lift weights.
- Check your blood. During your regular check-up–even if it’s just your usual Pap smear–ask your doctor to take a little blood for several routine blood tests: blood count, metabolic profile (checking for diabetes and liver or kidney disease), thyroid function, and vitamins B-12 and D. Memory problems can be associated with virtually any significant abnormal lab test result, and all are treatable. The two commonest we see at WholeHealth Chicago are low levels of B-12 and mildly underactive thyroid.
- Review the Rx. If you’re regularly taking any prescription drugs, try to recall if your memory issues started after you started taking any of them. Statins for cholesterol, blood pressure meds, anti-anxiety drugs, and antidepressants can be real memory villains for some people.
- If your hearing is less than perfect, get it checked. Poor hearing has definitely been linked to early memory loss. Hearing tests are covered by most health insurance policies. This place does a thorough exam.
- Eat high-nutrient foods. Memory loss is absolutely linked to inflammation, so following a low-inflammation eating program (like the Mediterranean Diet) is extremely helpful. Avoid these like the plague: junk food; foods with additives, chemicals, and preservatives; foods with trans fats. This study, linking trans fats with memory loss, is downright spooky. Andrew Weil, MD, created this anti-inflammatory food pyramid, which makes it easy to see what you should be eating.
- The spice turmeric (curcumin is its highly anti-inflammatory constituent) reduces inflammation throughout the body. Use it liberally in cooking and also consider a high-potency supplement. To get a sense of its power, read this recent research about its ability to cross the blood-brain barrier and reduce brain inflammation.
- Provide support for acetylcholine, the top neurotransmitter in your brain and peripheral nervous system. Current research indicates that regardless the type of mental decline (Alzheimer’s, strokes, Lewy Body, poor nutrition, inflammation), the treatment to slow mental deterioration involves stabilizing acetylcholine levels. The most widely prescribed medications for Alzheimer’s are the acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, which do just that. However, you can also improve your acetylcholine status with the supplement citicoline, shown in studies to improve memory. Placebo-controlled trails (where dummy pills are pitted against the real thing) have shown citicoline to be effective in both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementias. The current studies, in which the supplement is used for treatment, suggest 500 mg twice daily. I think, however, if you want to use the product for prevention, 250 mg twice daily would be fine. Citicoline is available in our apothecary.
David Edelberg, MD