Has this ever happened to you? Youre looking for something but suddenly you forget what youre looking for. Or you put down your car keys, but you cant remember where.
Or how about this? You begin a conversation and halfway through you cant remember what you were talking about. Or you meet someone at a party that you know youve met many times before, but suddenly you draw blank on his or her name.
Often, we jokingly refer to these experiences as senior moments. But as we get older and these moments become more frequent, its no longer very funny. It can be downright embarrassing or, worse, a foretelling of dementia or serious memory loss that may lie ahead.
Anyone who has seen a parent or loved one battle with Alzheimers or any of the other forms of dementia that eat away at our ability to remember knows firsthand just how very sad and debilitating these diseases can be.
Such diseases are becoming more prevalent as our population ages. According to the Alzheimers Association, 13% of those over the age of 65, or one in eight people, have Alzheimers -- and an estimated 16% of women and 11% of men have dementia over the age of 71. (Although rare, there is also something known as early-onset Alzheimers which, according to researcher Glenn E. Smith, affects an estimated 200,000 in the United States under the age of 65 with the majority of cases occurring during someones 50s).
Heres some good news for Boomers who have those senior moments. Paul David Nussbaum, Ph.D. is a Pittsburgh-based clinical neuropsychologist who has been researching brain health and caring for those with dementia and related disorders for more than twenty years and who is author of Save Your Brain: 5 Things You Must Do to Keep Your Mind Young and Sharp (McGraw-Hill, 2010). He calls those senior moments temporary forgetfulness.
He says that when those instantaneous memory losses occur, its usually due to stress caused by trying to do too much all at once, hormonal changes that occur naturally around the fifties, and perhaps mood fluctuations related to changes in life circumstances.
If the problem is severe, Nussbaum recommends you could get a neuropsychological assessment at a well-regarded academic medical center. But for most, those embarrassing occasional memory losses are not the precursor of the kind of dementia that robs someone of his or her life story as Nussbaum calls it.
Brain health movement
Still, those moments are a wake-up call that you need to put more time and energy into your brain. Nussbaum is part of what is known as the brain health movement. This is a movement that advocates taking a proactive approach to making lifestyle choices that will at least lower our risk of future brain disease.
The Alzheimers Association and the medical community are quick to point out that genetics and aging itself are two factors we simply cannot control that put us at risk for Alzheimers and other dementias. However, in this column Im going to focus on those factors we can control.
Plasticity of the brain
In bygone days, it was believed that we were born with a certain number of brain cells and that was it. But starting in the 1990s, scientific discoveries confirmed that we can actually generate new brain cells. How do we do it? We have to actively work on having a brain with plasticity.
What is plasticity? Nussbaum says its a brain that is dynamic, constantly recognizing, and malleable. In that way, we can also build up brain reserve, which, as Nussbaum says, could lead to better memory processing, better moods, more energy, and more efficient thinking. He says that brain reserve will, later on, make us better equipped to at least delay when or if dementia strikes.
Researchers have discovered there are ways to improve brain function as pointed out in The Healthy Brain Initiative. This study contends that what contributes to a healthy heart also contributes to a healthy brain. (See also "Heart Health for Boomers."
In his book, Nussbaum identifies five concerns that he calls critical areas for improving brain health:
• Physical activity;
• Mental stimulation;
In researching how to have a healthier brain, I found twelve top ways (many of which overlap with Nussbaums five critical areas) to enhance the plasticity of your brain, to build brain reserve, and to at least slow down the onset of dementia in later years:
1. Exercise. By boosting blood flow to the brain, exercise seems to be the number one factor in keeping your brain healthy. The American Geriatrics Society (AGS) recommends exercising on a regular basis or at least for thirty minutes, three times a week. Suggested exercise options include walking, gardening, swimming, cycling, or dancing.
2. Engage in activities that stimulate the brain like reading books, newspapers, or magazines, taking part in crafts, or exploring new information on the Internet.
3. Keep your mind challenged through word games and crossword puzzles. (Michel Noir, Ph.D. and Bernard Croisile, M.D., Ph.D. provide 301 easy, medium, and hard puzzles for building your brain plasticity in their series of brain-building exercise books including Beef Up Your Brain (McGraw-Hill, 2009).
4. Limit TV viewing to fewer than 7 hours a day. (See also Do Soaps & Talk Shows Dull The Brain?)
5. Eat a well-balanced diet that is filled with vegetables, fruits, sufficient protein, B vitamins, and high in omega-3 fatty acids and not saturated fats.
6. Stop smoking.
7. Consider if the prescription drugs you are taking combine to have a memory loss consequence and ask your physician to adjust accordingly.
8. Stay hydrated. Drink a lot of water.
9. Reduce stress in your life. As Paul E. Bendheim, M.D., author of The Brain Training Revolution (Sourcebooks, 2009), notes, stress in moderation can actually improve your short-term memory. He writes, Think of how the pressure and sense of urgency of an impending deadline improves your focus, concentration, and efficiency. However, there is also a different kind of stress that damages memory. High chronic stress levels are unhealthy and have been shown to damage the hippocampus [part of the brain] and thus impair memory and learning, Bendheim continues.
10. Get enough sleep. If you get less sleep because youre stressed, it will usually have a negative impact on your concentrateionand memory. Anyone who has ever pulled an all-nighter in school knows that too little sleep tends to mess up your memory and brain functioning. It also makes you more vulnerable to drowsy driving which can lead to an increased possibility of an accident or fatalities if you fall asleep at the wheel (or even to accidents at work).
11. Do something fresh and challenging. Dr. Nussbaum says the best way to build up those brain reserves is to do something that is new and hard. Stimulate that cortex with the novel and the complex One way to accomplish that? Travel says Nussbaum. It promotes brain health by exposing your brain to a new environment. Using the hand that is not your dominant hand is another way of doing something novelif you are a rightie brush your teeth with your left hand or trying teaching yourself to write with your other hand; learning a second or third language is another challenge to build up brain reserve.
12. Stay connected socially. Connect with family or friends on a regular basis. If you are still working, make sure you reach out to your connections through work. If you are retired and no longer working and feeling too isolated, consider a part-time job, getting active in any of the associations or community groups you belong to, or doing volunteer work to get more socially connected.
10 Warning Signs of Alzheimers
Still worried that your occasional forgetfulness is the sign of something far worse? Here are the ten warning signs of Alzheimers Disease, according to the University of South Florida Byrd Alzheimers Institute:
• Recent memory loss that affects your job skills;
• Difficult performing familiar tasks;
• Problems with language;
• Disorientation of time and place;
• Poor or decreased judgment;
• Problems with abstract thinking;
• Misplacing things;
• Changes in mood or behavior;
• Changes in personality;
• Loss of initiative.
These symptoms for Alzheimers are a far cry from occasionally misplacing your car keys. Fortunately research is showing that you can impact on how healthy your brain is or at least those factors that are not caused by genetics or advancing age. With science and technology partnering to help us all live a lot longer, keeping our brains as healthy as possible should be one of our top priorities.
Articles, Papers and Reports
- Tina Adler, Computer Brain Games Unlikely to Improve Thinking, Memory. AARP Bulletin, May 4, 2010.
- Jan Yager, Boomer Love: How is the Free Love Generation Doing Now? (Barry Petersen discusses his wifes early onset dementia and his book about it, Jans Story)
- Faika A. K. Zanjani, K. Warner Schaie, and Sherry L. Willis. Do Health Behaviors Affect Cognitive Change Similarly Across Abilities? Department of Human Development and Families Studies, Gerontology Center, Pennsylvania State University. Paper presented at the Bi-Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Aging Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, April 1-4, 2004.
How to Keep Your Brain in Shape...