Memory problems are common as we age. How is your memory, are you happy with it? In a previous article we focused on mood disorders, in the second part of this two part series I would like to focus on memory. I wanted to originally research and write an article on cognition as well as memory, but on closer inspection found that memory is such a huge topic in its own right, and this is one area I know that many of us would like to improve. Memory is your ability to store, retain, and subsequently recall information. This magical process happens at places in the brain known as synapses (where nerve cells “communicate” with each other through the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters).
Memory problems, like mood disorders can vary in intensity.Most people maintain a reasonable level of long term memory, but many people complain of a failing short term memory and some over the years have asked me if there is anything they can do or take to improve a flagging memory. This particularly so with those aged 65 and up, but short term memory problems can affect you a lot younger than that. Take a look at the three main stages below. Those who are under stress, particularly acute stress, will have a problem with encoding the information as well as recalling it. The elderly often have problems with the retrieval process, but can still encode the information alright. Have you ever thought about a person but got frustrated when you couldn’t remember their name? Then you have retrieval issues.
Now let’s take a closer look at what potentially causes memory loss to occur, how we can improve our short term memory and the best foods and supplements to take as well.
Memory impairment is the primary symptom of age-associated memory impairment.
Excessive generation of free radicals in the brain may cause memory impairment. This is why it is good to have a diet rich in the antioxidant foods even more so as you age. Memory impairment may occur as a symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) apparently 57% of hypoglycemia patients experience memory impairment). Insulin resistance may cause memory impairment. Memory impairment may occur as a result of hypothyroidism (under-active thyroid).
Stress: This is perhaps the No.1 cause of memory loss. Excessive stress can increase the rate of memory loss in elderly persons. Memory impairment may occur as a result of adrenal Insufficiency, often accompanied with fatigue. This often occurs after a period of prolonged stress. I’ll bet a few school teachers out there can agree here! Please refer to my previous Healthy Options article on Adrenal Fatigue from early 2006, there you will find many tips on improving adrenal exhaustion. Memory impairment is one of the characteristic symptoms of dementia (including Alzheimer’s Disease).
Memory loss may occur as a symptom of male menopause. Get your hormone levels checked here; testosterone replacement for men is becoming increasingly more mainstream therapy, both overseas and in NZ as well. Memory impairment may occur as a result of the PMS- (Pre Menstrual Syndrome). Visit your naturopath or herbalist here. I find that it takes about two to three months of treatment to get the cycle nicely back on track, generally speaking.
Memory and Stress, Depression and Worry
This will sound like a familiar scenario to many: you have you arrived somewhere and placed either you Eftpos card, sunglasses, keys, cell phone or handbag somewhere. When its time to leave, you can’t remember where you placed the item? Or, somebody gives you a phone number verbally, and sixty seconds later you can’t remember that number? A simple trick is to“imprint” the information.A lot of times, what we call “forgetfulness” is actually just the result of being distracted! So if you were surfing the internet while your partner was rattling off a grocery list, you’re not going to remember the list because your brain was focusing on the Internet. Try not to multitask when someone is talking to you – stop whatever you’re doing and focus on their words. Also, before entering a situation where you have to absorb information – like a meeting at work – jot down any other thoughts you’re having, to get them out of the way. That will “clear your mind” so you can focus on what you’re about to hear.
People who are often stressed out, anxious or depressed are far more likely to develop memory problems than those with sunnier and easy going dispositions. Studies show that stress hormones can literally shrink the memory centers in your brain. But doing something relaxing can improve your mental health. One study found that children who participated in a yoga (relaxation) camp showed a huge 43 percent increasein memory tests compared to kids who didn’t attend the camp. So, I propose to spend at least 15 minutes each day doing something that relaxes you – whether it’s yoga, walking, deep breathing, or reading a good book – do something just for you. You’ll be really glad you did when you’re 99 years old and can still remember where you put your sunglasses, credit card, handbag and especially your car keys!
Data from two large USA studies involving 1,256 older people who started the studies with no memory problems. After up to 12 years of follow up, 482 people in the study developed mild memory impairment. Participants were rated on how prone they are to worry and depression, and interestingly it was found that those who had the most depression and worry suffered most with an impaired short term memory.
If you understand the more technical aspects of your computer, your RAM memory is what makes up your computer’s short term memory, and your hard drive is the long term memory storage. When your computer “crashes”, this generally means that the RAM memory becomes scrambled up, and this is often caused by too much information being processed at any one time. It is generally solved with a “reboot.” If you become quite aware of how your memory really works, follow some of the techniques outlined in this article and eat more “memory foods”, you literally can increase how much “RAM memory” your brain is working with.
I can remember reading a book on memory some time ago, in which the author said that we tend to remember things the most which have left the greatest impressions on us. If an incident occurred in your younger years which affected you profoundly, it is likely that this will be recorded forever in your miniscule “hard drive” compartment called the hippocampus in the centre of your brain. Any memories with lots of strong emotions will bring back memories – songs and even smells are strongly associated with memory as well. Do you remember that song on the radio when you were first going out with your partner? It is sure to bring back many memories! Perhaps a particular scent or smell reminds you of somebody or some incident quite strongly?
Keep on Learning New Things
Dr. Andrew Weil, author of Healthy Aging says that the more you learn, the more new connections you create in your brain. And having lots of connections creates a rich, dense neural network that’ll be slower to produce symptoms of dementia. So make the effort to learn something new – a good choice is a foreign language or learn to play a musical instrument. Both require listening closely as well as involving processing and retrieving new information fast. And you don’t have to speak fluent Japanese or play a Mozart Sonata to perfection to reap the benefits either, apparently by just engaging in the learning process will keep your brain in good shape! My grandfather was an avid chess player and enjoyed cryptic crosswords well into his eighties. Do you have an interest which stimulates your mind? You will appreciate a sound mind when you are older, believe me.
Be More Visual
Do you want to remember somebody’s name? It is always nice to remember somebody’s name. Say their name back to them when you talk to them, this will ensure that you encode the sound of their name into your brain, a bit like when you save a document to your hard drive of your PC – you click save. Many of us are stressed to some degree in our dealings with others, particularly when we first meet somebody for the first time. Make sure you pay attention and look at the person’s face, or perhaps recognise some characteristic feature about them. Do they wear glasses, are their eyes a certain colour, is their certain smell or odour, does the person speak with an accent, etc. All these points help your brain to encode, but the biggest hint is to simply pay attention.I remember a massage teacher called Alan Polglase I had many years ago, who remembered over 50 student’s names just after the first class we had with him. He got each person in turn to introduce themselves and say a few words, then he said our names back to us after each one had spoken. Alan was concentrating, and encoding each name and face to his memory. I saw Alan several years after graduation and he still knew my name, along with the names of countless other students. Amazing? You would be amazed at how much you can really improve your memory if you try.
Memory and Sleep
Interesting studies conducted in America in 2005 discovered that an animal’s long term memory became very compromised if they tried to encode information very late at night and early in the morning. Our circadian clock (our night and day rhythm, controlled primarily by the hormone melatonin) shuts down the molecular circuit in our brain at a particular time of night, prohibiting both the encoding process and the occurrence of long-term memory. For many people, especially those under any form of stress, good quality sleep can have a profound affect on memory and brain power in general. What a simple, cheap and practical solution to improving your memory, just by getting more quality sleep! As studies reveal, sleep plays an important role in your long-term memory. Sleep is without doubt one of the absolute essential requirements if you are ever to achieve optimal mental, emotional and physical wellness, and I always make it an absolute priority on any patient’s health & wellness list. You will find that those who live the longest generally have a long history of excellent sleep patterns. And isn’t it great to wake up feeling fresh and invigorated, ready to face the new day!Please don’t tell me that you don’t have a TV in your bedroom, you don’t have a bed in your loungeroom, why have a TV in your bedroom? If you have a sleeping problem this is the first thing your do is to remove the TV. How can you ever wish to relax in such an environment?
This is very important: sleep in complete darkness or as close to it as possible. Light can disrupt your circadian rhythm and your brain’s production of the hormones melatonin and serotonin. A good tip is to get a dim nightlight which you plug into the power point in your bathroom. This will give you enough light at night should you need to visit the bathroom. Keep the light off (or have it very dim) when you go to the bathroom at night. Research has shown that as soon as you turn on a bright 100 watt light your brain will promptly cease production of the important sleep aid melatonin. Exposure to strong light during the middle of the night can severely affect your sleep cycle, and can rob you of your ability to develop a good memory.
Memory Foods and Supplements
It is best as always, to focus your efforts on having a fresh and healthy diet, when it comes to improving any aspect of your mental and physical health. However, there are some specific foods as well as dietary supplements which can have a positive effect on boosting your memory. Many people over the years have told me that they “feel like they are walking around with their head in a fog” Maybe you’re not quite as quick to remember a name as you once were or you find that common words seem to continuously slip your mind. Certain foods can actually help to boost your brainpower, clear away your mental fog and leave you with quicker thinking skills. Have a look at the list below, and by choosing these foods will not only make you appear more smart to those around you, such foods and herbs will actually help you to increase your memory, your mental clarity and ability to think better generally.
Blueberries help to prevent stress and inflammation-induced damage to the hippocampus and may even retard the degeneration of the hippocampus that occurs with the progression of the aging process. This wonderful fruit is one of the most potent foods you can eat as you age, do try to include some into your diet.
Sugar is not really a food as such, but it is a good one to bring to your attention to avoid. If you want to perform at your top level, intelligence, memory or otherwise, it is imperative to limit, if not completely avoid, sugar in your diet. High-sugar foods (like snack bars, fizzy drinks, lollies, etc) will disrupt your body’s homeostasis and insulin/blood sugar levels, which will contribute to many different disease as well as brain fog. Stop drinking any high sugar drinks – this is a good start. Aspartame may impair memory due to the toxic aspartic acid and methanol components of aspartame. Are you into artificial sugars still ? instead try Stevia or Xylitol.
Reduce Saturated Fatty Acids
Research on rats has demonstrated that memory impairment is directly associated with SFA intake. And make sure you get foods that reduce cholesterol and improve blood flow to your brain, like dark chocolate (small amounts), grape juice, tea, garlic and onions.
Fruit and vegetable juices
The best “brain juices” would have to be organically sourced broccoli, celery, carrots and also peeled cucumber.
But “I can’t eat eggs, my cholesterol will go up”, I hear you saying. Are you one of those who still believe that eating one to two eggs per day will elevate your cholesterol levels? If you are thinking about dietary solutions to improve your health in general, including your vision and your memory it would be wise to consider adding egg yolks to your diet. They are loaded with vital nutrients like phosphatidylcholine and serine that have been well documented in ample research to improve your memory. Go for free range, naturally.
Have you seen lecithin? It is a yellow waxy substance derived from Soy bean. A study was performed involving 61 healthy, older adults aged 50 to 80 years, who were given either 2 tablespoons (15 grams) of lecithin or a placebo for five weeks. The memory test scores of those subjects receiving lecithin improved significantly. The lecithin group also reported a 48% decrease in memory lapses. And – best of all, this stuff is quite reasonably priced, and available from you supermarket’s bulk food bins
Another excellent solution to improve your memory is to make sure you take enough Omega 3 in your diet: take about 3000mg of fish oil daily. Of course, be careful if you take Cartia or Warfarin. If you take any form of pharmaceutical medication, it is always wise to check with your pharmacist or health care practitioner when you start taking this level of Omega 3 daily. Your brain is made up of 60% fat and half of that fat is DHA, one of the primary fatty acids in fish oil. I am continually impressed how many of my patients experience dramatic improvement in their memory and cognition once they start increasing their fish oil.
Some of the best herbal medicines to take for a flagging memory are Korean and Siberian ginseng. Recent evidence suggests that administration of Ginseng can improve memory performance in both animals and in humans. The most striking result was a significant improvement in “quality of memory” and the associated after taking 400 mg of Korean ginseng, according to British 2001 research at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle upon Tyne.
In a French clinical trial in 1986, 8 healthy women received a single dose of Ginkgo biloba (either 120, 240 or a 600 mg dose) or a placebo dose (basically nothing). One hour after receiving Ginkgo biloba, short term memory was assessed. It was found that short term memory was very significantly improved following 600 mg of Ginkgo biloba extract, as compared with a placebo. I find this herb great for anybody over the age of 50 generally. Dr. Alfred Vogel, the well known Swiss Naturopath, once said that everybody over 65 should take a standardised Ginkgo biloba extract for a minimum of 6 months to experience its benefits. Other herbs which you may want to look at more closely in terms of brain function are Astragalus, Rosemary, Bacopa, and Gotu kola.
Things You May Want To Avoid To Improve Memory:
They come up all the time when it comes to brain health. A simple Hair Analysis test will determine the levels. Lead, arsenic and mercury toxicity are the most indicated here. Be on the lookout also for high copper in the hair.
levels may cause memory impairment. We have spoken about Homocysteine on previous occasions, get it checked out by your doctor by way of a “fasting test.”
Do you believe that as you age your memory should decline as well? This is not necessarily the case – especially if you are pro-active and do something about it! Start today with some of the exercises and brain specific foods.
- Andres-Lacueva, C., et al. Anthocyanins in aged blueberry-fed rats are found centrally and may enhance memory. Nutr Neurosci. 8(2):111-120, 2005.
- Katz, David L., M.D., M.P.H. Nutrition in Clinical Practice. New York: Lippincott, Williams, and Wilkins, 2001.
- Shiveley, LeeAnn R., M.P.H, R.D. and Patrick J. Connolly, M.D. “Medical Nutrition Therapy for Neurologic Disorders.” In Krause’s Food, Nutrition, & Diet Therapy. 10th edition. Edited by L.
- Bao, H. Y., et al. Memory enhancing and neuroprotective effects of selected ginsenosides. Arch Pharm Res. 28(3):335-342, 2005.
- Volz, H. P., et al. [Improvement in quality of life in the elderly. Results of a placebo-controlled study on the efficacy and tolerability of lecithin fluid in patients with impaired cognitive functions.] MMW Fortschr Med. 146:99-106, 2004.
- Zheng, Y. X., et al. [Meta-analysis in neurobehavioral toxicological studies]. Chung Hua Yu Fang Hsueh Tsa Chih. 28(5):281-283, 1994.