WHY MEMORY MALFUNCTIONS
One of the most common complaints I hear in clinical practice
concerns worry over memory loss. Unfortunately, as a normal part of
the aging process, many people start to find they can't bring to
mind names, places, and things as easily as they used to be able to
do and worry they're facing the beginning of dementia. "Benign
forgetfulness" is the name we give to a process that occurs with
normal aging in which a memory remains intact but our ability to
retrieve it becomes temporarily impaired. Usually we try to describe
the name or thing we can't recall and when someone names it for us
we instantly remember the word we wanted.
As long as this is age-appropriate and doesn't significantly
interfere with normal functioning, there is no increased risk for
progression to dementia. However, the trick lies in assessing what
is and isn't "age-appropriate." Formal testing is sometimes
necessary in ambiguous cases. Reassuringly, in one study, patients
over the age of 50 who initially presented with what was considered
to be benign forgetfulness had only a 9% chance of progressing to
dementia. Unfortunately, cognitive impairments other than memory
loss are correlated with a higher risk of progression to dementia.
Another reason people often have trouble remembering things is
because memory is a function of concentration. Which means when you
multi-task you tend to forget more easily. Have you ever entered a
room only to forget why you did so? More likely you'd remember if
you weren't simultaneously planning your dinner for that night and
trying to remember the phone number of the person who just left you
a message. This also explains why people who suffer from depression
or anxiety have a harder time remembering things: both conditions
interfere substantially with the ability to concentrate. The
strength of a memory is also determined by the emotional state that
accompanied the original event. Emotion, negative or positive, tends
to embed events in our memory like a chisel carves lines in stone. A
double-edged sword for people suffering from PTSD.
DECREASING THE RISK OF DEMENTIA
Here are three things you can do that have been shown in studies
to decrease the risk of mental deterioration as you age:
1. Exercise your body. Evidence suggests this not only retards
normal age-related memory deterioration but reduces the risk of
developing dementia. It doesn't even have to be vigorous exercise.
Just 150 minutes of walking per week has been shown to be of
benefit. Whether more intense exercise results in a greater risk
reduction remains unknown.
2. Exercise your mind. Evidence also suggests that doing things
that work the mind may delay or prevent memory loss. This research
is just in its infancy, so here's as good a guide as any to figuring
out what activities will work: if an activity requires you to take
breaks, it probably qualifies. We can watch television, for example,
for hours on end without becoming mentally fatigued, but solving
math problems, learning to knit, or even reading all require effort
that tires the mind.
3. Take ibuprofen. Though one study suggests a daily dose of
ibuprofen decreases the risk of developing dementia, the risk
reduction appears too modest to justify the increased risk of
stomach bleeding that accompanies ibuprofen's daily use and I do NOT
recommend this. However, if you're already taking ibuprofen for some
other condition, like arthritis, here might be an added benefit.
If the mind is indeed like a muscle (and research is validating
that model more and more) then memory may very well be like muscle
tone: the more the mind is used, the more robust memory may become.
As I've moved on from my medical school days to reach early (very
early) middle age, I've found myself experiencing benign
forgetfulness far more than I like. As a result, I find myself
comforted that the old adage "use it or lose it" is seeming more and
more not just to apply to the body but to the mind as well.
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