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Keep Your Memory Sharp

Don’t lose it - use it!


How does dementia differ from normal memory loss? Exercise, diet, natural supplements, and ongoing learning can help improve your memory and keep it sharp.

How does dementia differ from normal memory loss? Exercise, diet, natural supplements, and ongoing learning can help improve your memory and keep it sharp.

Ever since I can remember, my mother has worried about losing her memory. Whether she forgot where she left the keys or couldn’t remember someone’s name, she’d be sure to say, “That’s it, my memory’s going—it won’t be long now!”

My sisters and I just roll our eyes. If you’re always distracted when you walk into the house, how can you expect to know where the keys ended up?

Despite their probable inaccuracy, my mother’s fears about memory loss have affected me. Today when I can’t remember the name of a book or an acquaintance, it sometimes worries me too.

Forgetfulness or dementia? How to tell the difference

If you’re stressed, tired, sleep-deprived, sick, distracted, or overwhelmed by your to-do list, chances are you’ll experience increased levels of normal forgetfulness. This happens to everyone, and usually involves forgetting something that naturally comes to mind later.

Some of us do become more forgetful as we age. It can become harder to learn new information and remember names or words, and you may find it more difficult to recall where you put something. Experts believe that this mild age-related forgetfulness is quite normal, and that it may result from changes in brain receptors and hormones that begin around the age of 50.

More severe memory loss, which health professionals call dementia, presents quite differently. While someone with mild age-related memory loss can still function independently, someone with dementia can’t function safely through their day without the help of others.

People with mild memory loss, such as my mother, complain and worry about it. Those with true dementia may not comment on it at all, unless someone specifically asks them about or tests their memory.

As also demonstrated by my family, in cases of mild forgetfulness the person who forgets things is much more worried about his or her mental status than close family members are. With true dementia it’s the reverse, as family members worry more about the individual’s condition than he or she does.

Here is a classic example: an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease leaves a wake of unsafe circumstances behind her as she moves from room to room, such as stove burners left on and hot water left running in the bath. Her children or caretakers worriedly shadow her, turning things off and fearing that someday a catastrophe will happen.

When someone is aging normally, he or she can remember recent events and conversations. Not so for people suffering from dementia; they will forget about things that happened recently, may frequently appear confused, and can have a hard time holding a conversation.

They also commonly ask the same questions over and over again. Mentally healthy people remember how to get home and how to get around familiar areas; people with dementia may become easily lost and might be found wandering the streets close to home.

Types of dementia

Although most people associate dementia and memory loss with Alzheimer’s disease, there are actually several common types of significant memory loss.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)
This is a transitional stage between normal forgetfulness and true dementia in which memory loss progresses at a faster rate than normal. Although individuals may appear to be functioning quite well, they subtly demonstrate steadily increasing problems with memory, language, or problem solving.

If you’re concerned that you or someone you love may be suffering from MCI, see a health care practitioner. This condition can be diagnosed through neuropsychological or memory testing.

Alzheimer’s dementia
This much-feared form of severe memory loss is caused by the death of large numbers of brain cells. The brain actually shrinks, and characteristic lesions called amyloid plaques form alongside the nerve cells.

This dementia starts slowly and gets worse with time. The disease affects more than just memory, as brain areas that affect personality, judgment, and self-care can be dramatically affected.

Vascular dementia
While Alzheimer’s progresses gradually, vascular dementia caused by small strokes in the brain can cause sudden confusion and memory loss. Medical conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes increase the risk of having these mini strokes.

Parkinson’s dementia
Primarily a disorder of movement, Parkinson’s disease characteristically produces trembling and what’s described as a “pill-rolling” tremor in the hands (it appears that the person is rolling something back and forth between their thumb and index finger).

A person with Parkinson’s also typically develops a slow, shuffling way of walking and moving and problems with balance. In some cases affected individuals develop a dementia that affects memory, mood, and intellectual abilities.

Alcohol-related dementia
Up to 10 percent of all cases of dementia are thought to be caused by the damaging brain effects of chronic alcohol abuse. However, a study published this year suggests that light to moderate alcohol use might actually be protective to the brain and memory.

7 ways to maintain mental sharpness

Now for the good news: the scientific community is steadily learning more and more about what you can do to keep your mind sharp. Here are some strategies that may significantly decrease the possibility of ever developing severe memory loss.

Exercise regularly
Studies have found that regular physical activity is associated with improved brain function and a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s. In one study, seniors who exercised for just 15 minutes three or more times a week decreased their risk of developing this dreaded dementia by an impressive 35 to 40 percent.

In addition to being great fun, dancing actually makes you smarter. Learning steps and executing them to music stimulates learning centres in the brain and encourages enhanced communication between your right and left brain hemispheres.

A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that in a group of adults over age 75, regular dancing reduced the incidence of dementia by an astonishing 75 percent, making it the most effective dementia-preventing activity studied.

Always be learning something new
A university education doesn’t just give you a good start in life—it may also predict how your later years turn out. Research indicates that even if a person already has some brain signs of Alzheimer’s, they’re likely to retain more memory and learning abilities if they had more extensive formal education over their lifetime. People who learn and speak multiple languages also develop Alzheimer’s at a later age.

Stay healthy
A heart-healthy diet and lifestyle benefit both your heart and your brain. Not only can high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes increase your risk of mini strokes and vascular dementia, but these diseases, which damage blood vessels, may also promote the development of Alzheimer’s and might even make it worse.

Spend time with family and friends
People are good for both our souls and our brains. Having plenty of friends and an active social life, especially later in life, can preserve brain function and decrease the risk of developing dementia.

If someone already has dementia, friends and family can also play an essential role in helping their loved one to stay active, go on outings, make and attend doctors’ appointments, and maintain a safe living situation.

Engage in brain- stimulating hobbies
Think twice before you make fun of any stereotypical bridge-playing senior ladies. A large study found that the more that seniors played cards and other games, listened to the radio, watched television, read newspapers and books, performed puzzles, and visited museums, the less likely they were to develop dementia.

Card games played with friends pack a double benefit, as they combine powerfully protective social interaction with mind stimulation.

Eat foods rich in antioxidants and folate
Experts theorize that free radicals may build up in and damage nerve cells, leading to Alzheimer’s. Some studies suggest that both food and supplement sources of antioxidants may help prevent this damage.

Antioxidant-packed blueberries, strawberries, and cranberries have been shown to improve brain function in animals. Eating folate- and antioxidant-rich green leafy vegetables and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli is also thought to slow the decline of brain function.

There you have it: eat well, exercise, boogie, study, socialize, and play regularly and your brain and memory will thank you. Even if you’re only at risk of occasionally misplacing your keys, these win-win practices are sure to boost your odds of long life, happiness, and health.

Quick tips for keeping your memory on task

Download your brain into an electronic calendar
Today’s computer- and smartphone-based calendars do wonders for overwhelmed and memory-challenged adults of all ages. Recording all appointments and to-do’s and setting appropriate alarms as reminders take much of the pressure off remembering the details of a busy life and schedule. The stress reduction alone can positively affect your memory.

Boost your odds of remembering someone’s name
When you meet someone, repeat their name out loud after they introduce themselves (for example, “Great to meet you, Mike”), and find another opportunity later on to use their name in conversation. The more often you say their name, the more likely you are to remember it.

Keep active lists
Keep running lists for such things as groceries, to-dos, or people to call back. The more you can organize related items and tasks in one place, the more likely you are to remember them successfully when necessary.

Have a place for everything
Designate a consistent place for important things you regularly need and search for, such as your keys, wallet, sunglasses, and chequebook. Resist the urge to just scatter things willy-nilly after you use them or when you walk in the door.

Leave yourself reminders
If there’s something you must do, or can’t forget, or need to bring along with you when you leave the house, leave a note for yourself in a place where it will trigger you when you most need the reminder. For example, if you need to make an important phone call first thing the following morning, leave a note by your coffee maker so you’ll see it as you start your day.

Natural supplements that may help maintain memory

Fruit and vegetable extract-based powders
Fruit and vegetable-based powder extracts, designed to be added to water or juice, can be great natural sources of antioxidants that may protect against brain decline.

This powerful anti-inflammatory compound found in turmeric, the spice that gives Indian curries their colour and flavour, has been shown to suppress the buildup of Alzheimer’s-related cell damage in the brains of animals.

DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is the main essential omega-3 fatty acid found in the brain. It’s potently anti-inflammatory and can be found in fish oil supplements. A study in mice with Alzheimer’s showed that DHA also slowed the buildup of brain cell damaging substances, and some human studies show possible benefits.

Vitamin B12
Research has not clearly shown a specific benefit for preventing or treating Alzheimer’s with this vitamin; however, a significant percentage of people over age 50 are unable to absorb B12 from food and are at risk of developing B12 deficiency. A deficiency in B12 can present as problems concentrating, mood swings, confusion, and even full-blown dementia, and can be prevented and reversed by supplementing with B12.

*Note: before taking any supplements, check with your health care practitioner to rule out any medication interactions or possible harmful effects. This is particularly important for seniors who may already be taking multiple medications.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD