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Friday, September 10, 2010

Memory Loss on Your Mind?

The good news is that your occasional memory loss is probably nothing to worry about
By Janene Mascarella


It's an all-too-common scenario: You've lost your keys (again!), don't remember where you left your glasses, or, for the life of you, can't recall the name of that darn movie. And your first reaction is "Sheesh — I must be getting old. I'm losing my memory!"

Well, the reassuring news is that these so-called senior moments have nothing to do with your brain getting old, says Pierce J. Howard, Ph.D., director of research at the Center for Applied Cognitive Sciences in Charlotte, North Carolina, and the author of The Owner's Manual for the Brain. Chances are your (very normal) memory snafus are associated not with age but with experience.

Memory Rivalry
Try this brainteaser: Off the top of your head, name ten things that are the color red. Not as easy as it sounds, is it? When you were 5 years old, you could probably have completed this task easily, but by the time you reach your "seasoned" years, your brain is filled with some 6,000 objects that are red. And because we have so many things in brain storage bins that fit the description — what scientists refer to as rivals — we struggle when we try to remember the name of a red object.
"Your mind will cycle through hundreds of candidates before you come up with the right ones," explains Howard. "And it might take longer than you expect. That's not a memory lapse. It's simply trying to recall a memory that's in storage." Ever notice your computer slowing down when the hard drive gets too full? It's akin to what happens with the human mind — as it gets fuller, it takes more time to sift through everything. "Aging is a misnomer here," says Howard. "It's not getting old that causes the sluggishness of memory — it's simply a crowded memory bank. By now, you've got so many associations that it's just a competition in your mind for the correct memory to surface."

According to Howard, there are three key ingredients for forming a memory and making it stick:
  1. Intending to remember. This means making a conscious decision and saying it out loud, if necessary: "Okay, I just put my keys in the bowl on the hall table. Can't forget that."
  2. Associating the memory with something visual. Visualize the ignition to your car as a bowl instead of a keyhole. When you're looking for your keys, you'll visualize the key going into the bowl — "Ah, the keys are in the bowl!"
  3. Practicing it. For short-term memories, you need to repeat the associations you form a couple of times before they'll stick. For something you want to remember over the long term (say, the name of your cousin's new husband), you need to practice every day by rehearsing what you'd like to recall or running through those visual associations. (Think "Mary's new husband is Bob, and he likes to swim" as you visualize a man "bobbing" up and down in the water.) Try repeating these associations during idle time, perhaps when you're sitting in traffic or taking a walk.

Know Thy Memory Enemies
We're born with about 23 billion neurons (nerve cells in the brain), and while individual rates of brain cell loss vary widely, it is said that we lose some 100,000 neurons a day. That number could spike higher depending on your lifestyle and health. For example, heavy drinking and prolonged stress are significant neuron assailants.
One cause of neural deterioration that we have no control over is insufficient acetylcholine. This is a crucial neurotransmitter, low levels of which cause cell membranes to become brittle and disintegrate. The dietary source for acetylcholine is a fat known as lecithin, which is found in beef; safflower, corn, and soybean oils; eggs; wheat germ; and nuts — if you're not getting much of these foods into your diet, you might consider taking a lecithin supplement.

In addition, certain substances can damage neurons, as can lifestyle choices and health problems, including the following:
  • Too much caffeine. A dehydrating agent, caffeine can, over time, make your neural membranes brittle. It's a double whammy, too: It can affect your ability to recall because it encourages the production of excess cortisol, the stress chemical that prepares you for "fight or flight." Too much cortisol can shrink the size of your hippocampus, which is where memories are stored in the brain. Howard says it's best not to exceed one dose of caffeine every seven hours. (A dose is one milligram per pound of body weight.) In such moderate amounts, however, some studies have shown that caffeine can, in fact, offer health benefits — just be sure not to overdo it!
  • Heavy alcohol consumption. Because alcohol is also a diuretic, it can cause dehydration, producing symptoms such as confusion and memory problems. So for every ounce of alcohol you consume, drink a glass of water, says Howard. Alcohol may also directly lead to neuronal degeneration.
  • A sedentary lifestyle and untreated high blood pressure. Both can make you susceptible to memory lapses. A rule of thumb worth following: Anything that's good for the heart is good for the mind. That's because mental activity is dependent on blood flow (among other factors), which also supplies essential oxygen to the brain.
  • Prolonged stress and illness. Both of these can wreak havoc on mental as well as physical functioning.
  • Resting on your laurels. This is no time to be complacent or lazy. It's important to keep stimulating your mind to learn new things and take on new challenges. Follow the slogan Use it or lose it!
If you're worried that you're forgetting too much, here's the bottom line: Don't sweat memory stumbles. Try not to get frustrated — be amused instead, suggests Howard. And it's a good idea to be humble and to enlist a "memory partner" (such as your spouse or a little notebook) to help you remember names, dates, and so on. Finally, try to keep a positive perspective: A full mind equals a full life, but remember — it's not even close to capacity yet. 

Men Seem More Susceptible to Memory Problems Than Women

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Elderly men are more likely to suffer memory problems than women, new research shows.
The study included 2,050 people, aged 70 to 89, in Olmsted County, Minn., who were interviewed about their memory and medical history, and who underwent testing of their memory and thinking skills.
Overall, nearly 14 percent of the participants had mild cognitive impairment (MCI), but the rate was 1.5 times higher in men (19 percent) than in women (14 percent). People with MCI have memory or thinking problems that are more serious than what's associated with normal aging. Although not everyone who has MCI develops Alzheimer's disease, people with the impairment do often go on to develop it, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
The study, published in the Sept. 7 issue of the journal Neurology, also found that about 10 percent of the participants had dementia, and 76 percent had normal memory and thinking skills.
"This is the first study conducted among community-dwelling persons to find a higher prevalence of MCI in men," study author Dr. Ronald Petersen, of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said in an American Academy of Neurology news release.
"If these results are confirmed in other studies, it may suggest that factors related to gender play a role in the disease. For example, men may experience cognitive decline earlier in life but more gradually, whereas women may transition from normal memory directly to dementia at a later age but more quickly," he added.
The study, funded by the U.S. National Institute on Aging and a Mayo Clinic Alzheimer's disease research program, also found that MCI was more common among people who had a lower level of education or who were never married.


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