Keeping Your Memory Sharp

keeping your memory sharp, fahc memory clinic, vermont memory care, bill pendlebury, dr pendlebury vtBy William W. Pendlebury, MD

We all forget sometimes.

High-quality memory formation requires an attentive, focused mind. In our highly complex and busy 21st century environment, concentrated attention about what is going on around us can be challenging. Not remembering the name of a casual acquaintance or where the car keys were last left is typical from that perspective. A memory that contains newly acquired information, riddled with background noise and distraction, can be easily forgotten.

Still, having a memory that is sharp and reliable is possible at any age. With some changes in lifestyle, anyone can work to improve memory.

5 Tips to a Better Memory

  • Remain socially engaged. A number of studies have demonstrated that social isolation and loneliness pose a significant risk for memory decline and dementia.
  • Engage in regular exercise. Walking for at least 30 minutes three to four times per week is an ideal exercise program.
  • Practice intellectual stimulation. Reading for pleasure, word games, working on puzzles and engaging in conversation with others are all meaningful measures to promote healthy brain aging.
  • Don’t smoke, period.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. A maximum of two, normal-sized alcoholic beverages per day is consistent with a healthy brain.

Why People Forget

Memory formation and retrieval is a complex process for which the biologic underpinnings and mechanisms are not completely understood.  That said, there are a number of factors thought to be responsible for normal (i.e., in the absence of disease) forgetting. Forgetting is a normal, unconscious attribute of memory formation. This is likely due to the fact that some information represented by a new memory is already embedded in old, stored memories, and therefore represents redundant (and not particularly useful) information.

Also, the emotional content of a memory is an important attribute of how well the information embedded in that memory is remembered. If you were to think back on a lifetime of memories most keenly remembered, those memories are probably ones associated with significant emotional flavoring (a wedding day, a first date, acceptance to college, the first day on a new job, etc.)

Age and Memory

Most studies demonstrate that normal memory loss begins at about the age of 40. This type of age-related memory loss is not due to any disease process, and why it happens as a function of aging is not entirely clear. Like all other organ systems in the body, age-related changes in the brain are unavoidable but entirely consistent with a high-quality, productive and satisfying life.

Age-related memory loss is not particularly progressive (although it may be aggravating and frustrating), and is not associated with any loss of functional ability or change in behavior. One important attribute of normal age-related memory loss is slowed processing speed, so that memory retrieval may take somewhat more time in older people compared with younger people. It is a well-known fact that older peoples’ performance on complex memory tasks is just as good as that of younger people if they are given a little more time to complete the task.

Memory Loss Myths

The biggest memory-loss myth is perpetrated by the marketing strategies of pharmaceutical companies that promote the use of nutritional supplements and herbal remedies to either improve memory or prevent memory loss. There is absolutely no definitive scientific evidence to support such claims. In fact, an expert panel convened by the National Institute of Aging in April 2010 concluded that there is no substantial reason for people to take over-the-counter agents to promote healthy brain aging.

A second memory-loss myth is the notion that abnormal memory loss is a normal part of the aging process and not in need of a medical assessment. If you are concerned about your memory function, or you have a friend or relative for whom you have concern, this is a health issue that should be subjected to a careful and complete medical evaluation.

In fact, there are many medical causes for abnormal memory loss that are imminently treatable; but detection comes first.

William W. Pendlebury, MD, is a pathologist and neurologist with expertise in Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss at Fletcher Allen’s Memory Center.