Can You Fix Memory Loss?

A healthy lifestyle can help keep your memory sharp



Illustration by Stephen Sauer

We've all done it at one time or another: misplaced the car keys, fumbled to find the right word, spaced on an appointment, blanked on someone's name. Was it just a "senior moment," or something more serious, like dementia?

Dementia is a blanket term for a decline in mental ability serious enough to interfere with day-to-day activities. When brain cells are damaged they can't communicate with each other effectively or function normally. Alzheimer's is the most common type of dementia - it accounts for about 60 to 80 percent of cases - but it's not the only form.

Luckily, "worrying about dementia is a lot more prevalent than the actual disease," says Dr. Millie LaFontaine, a neurologist with Concord Hospital. And while some forms of memory loss, such as early-onset Alzheimer's, are most likely to be familial, "most adults who are worried about their memory are probably not demented." She does add, however, that dementia is becoming more common because people are living longer: "It's a disease that is related to survival, no question about it."

You can't change your age or genes but there are simple steps you can take to reduce your risk and give your brain a boost. And despite a multi-billion-dollar industry that might tell you otherwise, "brain training" games most likely aren't the answer. According to studies, current evidence on their effectiveness is lacking. So before you go out and purchase the latest software program or computer game to keep you sharper, know that according to the medical experts, nothing beats good old-fashioned healthy lifestyle habits for keeping your mind active and working at its best.

"Brain 'exercises,' per se, might help you do that particular exercise better, but there is no proof that they will stave off dementia or make it any less likely to progress," says LaFontaine. In other words, playing memory games on the computer might make you better at that specific game but it won't help you find your car keys any better.

LaFontaine says the things that do seem to make a difference are generally keeping your body healthy.

"Exercise is the best thing that just about anybody can do for themselves to have a positive impact on dementia," she says. "Walking, first and foremost, is great, but even chair or pool exercises - anything you do on a regular basis that is sustained for more than a few minutes is great." Daily physical activity benefits brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow to them and therefore keeps your mind sharp. So Suduko might not be the answer, but salsa dancing just might.

Physical activity also helps you maintain a healthy body weight. Carrying around excess belly fat, for example, contributes to other diseases and that in turn contributes to your risk, she says. These diseases come from living in a developed country, says LaFontaine: namely, diabetes and heart disease, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. "Those things are a big risk for dementia including Alzheimer's," she says. "Having those risk factors controlled is very important to keeping the brain healthy."

A well-balanced diet with fresh fruits and vegetables and swapping more whole foods for less-processed foods and those with preservatives in them is also beneficial for your brain. "You are what you eat," says LaFontaine, "so if you're living on canned food or eating just one type of thing, you're not feeding your brain." And while she recommends a predominantly non-animal-based diet such as nuts to get your protein needs, she adds that fish is also a great brain food.

Don't be swayed by a "magic pill" or vitamin supplement, however, to get your nutritional needs. Those things might be alright to cover your bases if you're not eating a well-rounded diet or, say, don't like the taste of fish but they aren't as good as the real thing. "There's no real evidence that megavitamins are going to help your mind," says LaFontaine. "There is no substitute for food-based vitamins and minerals and antioxidants. Fish oil [in pill form] might be good but fish oil from a fish is even better." And, she adds, seniors might be spending their money on very expensive supplements from the drugstore when they would probably do better just getting kale or spinach from the grocery store.

A person's lifestyle also factors into the healthy mind equation. If you are a smoker, for instance, experts such as LaFontaine say that it is absolutely time to quit. Studies show that smokers have more memory impairment than nonsmokers. Not only does this habit increase the risk for stroke and hypertension, two causes of memory loss, but it also interferes with lung function. (Good lung function has been shown to be a characteristic of people whose memories are stronger in older age.)

Along with keeping your body healthy, it's just as important to keep your social life busy. Maintaining healthy interpersonal connections - whether it's friends, relatives, pets or your line dance group - says LaFontaine, those things do help you stay cognitively healthier as well. "People who say 'I've never been much of a people person' unfortunately have more of a risk factor," she adds. "Unless they find a connection or an interest, or something that they do like, it's a slope that is not going to go in the direction that they might hope to go in."

Recent studies back this up: One published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry followed 2,000 elderly people in the Netherlands for three years. None of the participants had signs of dementia at the start of the study. The investigation found that those who lived alone or who were no longer married were between 70 and 80 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who lived with others or were married. And those who felt lonely were more than 2.5 times more likely to develop dementia than those who weren't lonely, according to the findings. Men and women were equally affected. Another study suggests that depression in seniors might be linked to some forms of dementia.

If you are concerned about your memory, it's good to make an appointment with your doctor, says LaFontaine, so that you can be evaluated for the obvious things and monitored from that point. But whether or not it's anything serious, "worrying about your memory is certainly not going to help it," she says.

FYI: How Much is Enough?

Dementia not only takes its toll emotionally, but it has a huge financial impact as well, according to a recently released report by the members of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

The Alzheimer's Association estimates that without significant progress in treatments or a cure for Alzheimer's Disease (AD), the disease will cost the US - including the government, insurance companies and individuals - about $20 trillion over the next 40 years.

That's why, despite challenging fiscal climates, the United States has to continue to make funding scientific research on Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia a priority, says the Senate committee.

"These staggering projections underscore not only the human, scientific and clinical challenges, but also the financial impact of AD without new discoveries in treatments, cures and care for AD."

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