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Health Information | 10/01/2014

Preserving Memory Function as You Age

By  Dr. Navya Nambudiri

You lost your car keys twice last week, or you forgot what you needed when you walked into the living room. Are you just having a senior moment, or could it be the beginning of a more serious memory problem?

Experiencing mild forgetfulness is a normal part of aging. As you get older, you may notice that you forget to do a routine task, lose certain items from time to time, or take longer to learn a new skill. Additionally, language skills can be mildly impacted as we age, so you might find yourself mispronouncing words, using the wrong words when describing something or forgetting certain words in the moment.

What is Dementia?

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability that is severe enough to interfere with daily life. Dementia is an umbrella term that includes Alzheimer’s disease, which accounts for 60-80% of dementia cases, and vascular dementia, which occurs after a stroke. Those with dementia can no longer pay bills, manage medications, cook, or perform other tasks they were once able to do. These symptoms generally start gradually and worsen over time.

Risk Factors for Dementia

Although our memory may decline as we age, it doesn’t mean you will get dementia. However, there are some risk factors that may make you more predisposed to developing dementia.
  • Age – as we age, we inevitably lose some memory function and the ability to multi-task. You may get more easily distracted and therefore not perform tasks as well as you once did.
  • Family History – if you have a strong family history of dementia, it may increase your risk.
  • Genetics – science suggests that some genes may play a role in whether you will get dementia. Over 20 genetic variants have been found to increase your risk of dementia.
  • Repeated head trauma – if you had multiple concussions over your lifetime, you should make your provider aware as this has been connected to memory impairment.
  • Excessive drinking – some studies show that alcohol use disorder may be connected to early-onset dementia because of alcohol’s impact on the brain.
  • Cardiovascular disease – your brain relies on blood flow to supply it with vital food and oxygen. Taking steps to protect your heart, such as quitting smoking and keeping your blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar under control can also help protect your brain.
  • Diabetes – poorly managed diabetes may increase your risk for memory loss, as high blood sugar or insulin levels can harm the brain by causing chemical imbalances, brain inflammation or damaged blood vessels.
  • Medication – certain medications may cause you to experience confusion or forgetfulness as a side effect. Be sure to communicate with your provider if you experience these symptoms after starting a new medication.

There are several common myths about things that can cause dementia, such as drinking out of aluminum cans, consuming aspartame, metal tooth fillings, and getting a flu shot. None of these things has been found to cause memory loss. In fact, it’s incredibly important for seniors to get their flu shot every year to help protect against serious illness.

Preventing Memory Loss

Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that can prevent dementia. There are many advertisements for prescription drugs as well as over-the-counter supplements that claim to improve memory function, but more research is needed on ways to prevent dementia from occurring. Some prescription medications can be moderately effective at slowing the progression of dementia, but there is currently no cure for the disease. However, there are some things you can do to help keep your memory intact:
  • Diet – your diet can have the greatest impact on brain health, so eating a heart-healthy diet is highly recommended. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain!
  • Physical activity – exercise has been shown to help memory and function in people who have no memory impairment as well as those who do have an impairment. Simply going for regular walks will benefit your health and your memory.
  • Sleep – getting a good night’s rest can help improve memory retention and consolidation, which is essential for memory function. The National Sleep Foundation recommends getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night for adults and 7 to 8 hours each night for adults over 65.
  • Learn something new – whether it’s a new game or even a second language, learning a new skill can help keep your brain sharp.
  • Socializing – doing crossword puzzles and playing games is good for your brain, but getting together with groups of people to play games and socialize is even better. Doing activities that require you to interact on multiple levels is even more effective for your brain.

It’s important to note that normal memory loss should not seriously impact your day-to-day life. Even if you forget something, you should be able to remember it later or after being prompted. If you feel as though you’re living in a fog, forgetting important things like your name or address, or having trouble taking care of your personal hygiene and responsibilities, that may be a sign of a more serious cognitive issue.

If you’re worried about your memory or the memory of a loved one, your provider can do an in-office screening test to measure cognitive impairment. If dementia is detected during the mild stage, it will allow your provider to monitor its progression and prescribe medication where appropriate. Early diagnosis also allows patients and family members to plan for the medical, social, and legal issues that can come up as the disease progresses.

If a healthcare provider has diagnosed you or a loved one with dementia, organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association can offer support and resources.

Updated November 2021

About The Author

Dr. Navya Nambudiri

Dr. Navya Nambudiri joined Atrius Health in 2019 and is a board-certified internist at our Chestnut Hill/West Roxbury location. She received her medical degree from Co-Operative Medical College in Kalamassery, Kochi, Kerala, India and completed her residency at Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, SC. Dr. Nambudiri’s clinical interests include preventive care, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

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