Several years ago, my friend Anna and I agreed to separately watch the movie “Away from Her” (which features an Oscar-nominated performance by Julie Christie as a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease). We planned to get together to discuss any insights from the movie so I could write about our discussion for HealthCentral’s Alzheimer’s site. Both Anna and I had dealt with caregiving for someone with dementia, but as we began our conversation, I found that I was surprised that the movie had surfaced worries on Anna’s part that she might be in the early stages of dementia. Anna, who at the time was in her early 50s, described how she was forgetting things that she was able to remember before. For instance, she told me about how she had recently gone to the grocery store and picked up some frozen dinners. She remembered going through the checkout line and paying, but couldn’t figure out for the life of her where those dinners were when she got home. I listened with concern and encouraged Anna to tell her doctor about her worries when she had her annual physical examination the following week.
Later that week, I called Anna to find out what happened. She described how she told her doctor (a woman) about the grocery store incident. The doctor reached over, patted her on the arm, and said, “When you look at me, do you notice anything unique?” Anna gave the doctor a once over and replied “No.” The doctor pointed out that she was wearing only one earring. “I went running out of my house this morning and forgot to put the other one on,” she explained, adding that as women age, we have more difficulty multi-tasking. Combine that with shifting hormones that mark perimenopause and you can easily experience lapses in memory that might be confused for the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
So how can we limit the memory lapses that seem to happen on a daily basis. Over the weekend, I was catching up on my reading and noticed that the June 2009 issue of More featured “Get Smarter: New Rules for Saving Your Memory.” In the article, author Judy Jones interviewed Dr. John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, and author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.
Here is some of the pertinent information from their discussion:
- Everyone loses approximately 85,000 neurons a day; we are at our mental peak when we’re 18-19 years of age.
- There are four separate processing steps to remembering one piece of information: encoding, when information enters your brain; storage, which determines what you’re going to do with a piece of information once you encode it; retrieval, which is being able to come up with the information again; and forgetting, a controlled effort to forget information that isn’t relevant and that you really don’t need.
- Mid-life memory failings are due to our brains having difficulty blocking out unnecessary information, which then clutters our brain functioning.
- Women do have menopausal issues in relation to memory since their changing hormones can increase some natural effects of aging on the brain. “More important, I think, is the fact that women assume responsibility for crucial threads in the social fabric that guys don’t. As a result, women are required to be more reliable,” Dr. Medina said. Thus, the scope of a woman’s to-do list may easily cause her to forget a key item (like where my friend Anna left the frozen food).
- Chronic stress can cause excessive amounts of cortisol to damage the hippocampus, which controls the brain’s ability to learn and remember. Dr. Medina noted that the type of stress that is most harmful to the brain happens when a person feels she has no control over a negative situation. Therefore, controlling stress is very important in order to limit memory loss.
Dr. Medina suggests two pieces of advice that each person can use to control the decrease in mental ability due to aging. “The first is to stop and take an inventory of your life. Pinpoint those areas where you feel overwhelmed and helpless, and try to take command of the situation,” Dr. Medina advised.
The second piece of advice is to lead a physically active lifestyle, which research has shown lowers your risk of Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, and affective disorders such as depression. Dr. Medina explained, “Active is defined as the presence of aerobic exercise as a regular part of your life, forever.” Research indicates that after as little as four months of exercise (meaning 30 minutes of aerobic workouts three times a week), a person may see a 100-200% improvement in various tests measuring the ability to process information. Furthermore, preliminary research indicates that memory will improve after three years of doing regular aerobic exercise.
In another article in the same edition of More, three types of forgetting are described. These are:
- Absentmindedness (such as looking for your glasses). To avoid this, place items in the same place regularly so you don’t have to encode a new resting spot. You also can write instructions on a notepad and place it where you will see it when you need to carry out the actions.
- Tip of the tongue (such as when you try to remember a person’s name). To deal with this, realize that you are going to forget , so you need look at a list of participants prior to an event. If you can’t put names and faces together, admit that you’re stumped when you meet a person and ask for a reminder of his/her name. At that point, prepare yourself to remember the new name.
- Transience (when memory for details fades because the brain prioritizes more important information). To deal with this situation, create mental associations that link things that have a verbal connection or use mnemonic devices to remember unrelated numbers or letters.
Of course, if like Anna, you’re worried about dementia, do see your doctor. But realizing that there are reasons behind mental lapses and ways to avoid these lapses can be important to maintaining your sanity.
Published On: January 03, 2010