We’ve all had “senior” moments when we have trouble recalling the word “fork” or wonder where we put the car keys. Modern life brings distractions and the stress of living in a fast-forward world. I recommend coping by including time for self-development, which can help you maintain and improve your memory.
Do mental exercises and diet make a difference?
Yes, they really do. It’s all about balance. Take positive control of your life. People who are plugged in intellectually and socially have a greater chance of preserving memory. When you function on a higher plane, the memory loss you experience won’t markedly disable you. I’m in favor of lifelong education because I’ve seen how it helps forge new connections in the brain, slowing down mental decline. Try a new recipe, play bridge or sudoku, or brush up on your Italian.
Proper diet and exercise are always a good way to preserve health, since physical condition has a great impact on brain function. I have seen the devastating effects of stroke-related dementia. There are also damaging effects from long-term alcohol or drug use. Always seek the advice of your physician prior to starting any exercise regimen.
What about gingko biloba and other supplements or memory medications?
I always recommend looking at the science. Nothing has really been proven regarding the effectiveness of gingko or Coenzyme Q10, for that matter. A large-scale study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2009 found no evidence that gingko prevents memory loss or slows the progression of cognitive decline in older adults. Vitamin E was touted as a memory aid, but it caused a host of health problems among some patients.
If you are considering a memory-aiding supplement, you should discuss it with your physician first. Many of these medications interact with prescription drugs or cause other health issues. There are medications like Arecept and Excelon that can temporarily improve symptoms, maximize function and maintain independence, but those must only be taken under a doctor’s care.
I’m forgetful sometimes. Is it Alzheimer’s?
Remember, the flexibility of the brain decreases with age and the ability to multitask declines. Every person, regardless of age, can be forgetful. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, which is a group of brain disorders that causes progressive loss of social and intellectual skills that are severe enough to interfere with daily living.
The chance of developing Alzheimer’s in your 40s or 50s is rare. Onset this young is usually genetic and would be characterized by a rapid decline in mental and physical health. The earlier you develop the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, the more likely it is to progress quickly. If it develops in your 90s, it’s usually a slower progression.
If you are concerned that you are having difficulty remembering things or doing tasks that you used to be able to do — such as balancing your checkbook — you should consult your primary care physician. There are medical conditions that can cause symptoms that resemble dementia. These include interactions of medications, infections, sleep deprivation and even severe depression. Your physician can begin the process of assessing your health and make the appropriate referrals for continued assessment and treatment.
So, what’s the single best thing you can do?
Challenge yourself every day. Keep it positive and don’t get frustrated.
Dr. William Solan is board-certified in geriatric psychiatry and is the medical director of Northwest Hospital’s geropsychiatric center.