Just where did I put my keys?
Sound familiar? If so, you might be worried that you’re starting to lose your memory.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported in July 2018 that one in nine Americans age 45 and older were experiencing declines in thinking and memory. It can be a frightening thing to think about, as the amyloid plaques that sometimes appear in the brain—the hallmark sign of Alzheimer’s disease—can begin to form starting in a person’s 40s.
The Alzheimer’s Association (AA) reports that Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, with one in three seniors dying from it or another form of dementia. About 5.8 million Americans are living with it today, and estimates are that by the year 2050, that number will rise to nearly 14 million. Between the years 2000 and 2017, deaths from heart disease decreased by 9 percent, while deaths from Alzheimer’s increased by 145 percent.
It’s not just Alzheimer’s we have to worry about. Though it is the leading cause of memory loss, there are other forms of dementia that affect memory, too, including blood vessel changes (vascular dementia), brain degeneration (frontotemporal lobar degeneration), Parkinson’s disease, and more.
Fortunately, most people will live long and healthy lives while avoiding dementia, though they may still experience irritating memory lapses from time to time. Considered a “normal” part of aging, these gaps can be unsettling, and make you feel like you’re older than you want to be.
In today’s technologically driven world, even younger adults may feel like their memories are suffering. Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald, Doctor of Acupuncture & Oriental Medicine, wrote on ThriveGlobal that she sees more young patients in their 30s, 40, and 50s seeking help with memory issues.
Indeed, there is some evidence that technology, including smartphones, the Internet, and social media, could be negatively affecting both cognition and memory.
The good news is that today, we understand a lot more about the brain than we used to. We’ve learned a number of things we can do to protect and sustain memory, including making smart lifestyle choices and using brain-boosting supplements when needed.
Why Does Memory Loss Occur?
Most of us associate memory loss with age and disease, and these are two of the main causes, but there are several others, as well.
Age-Related Memory Decline
Just as the body changes with age, the brain does, too. According to a 2002 study, about 40 percent of people aged 65 and older have age-associated memory impairment. Most of these cases will not progress to dementia, but they do represent the declines that can occur in the brain with time.
Scientists have found that as we get older, the hippocampus, which is the center of emotion and memory, actually shrinks in size. The neurons that are responsible for the communication that goes on between various sections of the brain may not function as well as they once did, especially as the protective sheath around the nerve fibers wears away, slowing the speed of communication.
Both of these changes can affect your ability to retain memories or to retrieve them when you want to. This may be part of the reason you have trouble finding just the right word, or why a memory seems “there,” but just beyond your reach.
Hormones and proteins that stimulate neural growth also decline with age, and free-radical damage accumulates. Blood flow to the brain decreases, and white matter pathways erode. All of these changes can affect memory and other forms of cognition, as well.
Not all age-related changes are bad. We know that some connections in the brain actually improve with age, particularly those between distant areas, so that we become more adept at seeing the “big picture” and at detecting relationships between seemingly unrelated things.
But there’s no doubt that age can take its toll on brain structures in such a way that we may notice that we’re not as quick or as sharp as we used to be. Age is also the biggest risk factor for many brain diseases that physically damage the brain.
Medical Conditions that Affect Memory
It’s not only Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s that can cause memory loss. There are many medical conditions that can have a negative effect on the brain’s ability to retain memories. These include:
- Thyroid disorders (hyperthyroidism, hypothyroidism)
- Tumors, blood clots, or infections in the brain
- Head injuries
- Huntington’s disease
- Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
- Cardiovascular disease
- Tourette Syndrome
- Vitamin deficiencies, particularly vitamin B12
With treatment, some of these conditions can be improved or their damage limited so that the brain retains most of its normal memory function.
In addition to physical illnesses, some mental illnesses can also damage the brain:
- Bipolar disorder
Certain medications, as well, can affect how the brain functions, and may cause memory problems, particularly in older adults:
- Sleep aids
- Muscle relaxants
- Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications
- Some medications used to treat urinary incontinence
- Some medications used to treat stomach cramps
This is why it’s important, if you’re noticing lapses in memory, to check with your doctor to rule out a medical cause.
Lifestyle Factors that Affect Memory
You have probably experienced days when your memory was sharp and working well, and other days when it seemed sluggish. It’s not your imagination—certain lifestyle factors can affect memory on a short- and long-term basis, perhaps more than you may think.
Below are some of the most common habits that may have you looking all over for those keys.
Drinking Too Much Alcohol
Alcohol slows communication among brain cells, which is why drinking too much can cause slurred speech, drowsiness, and dizziness. It’s also the reason why you may have a hard time remembering what you did while drunk.
Though the occasional heavy drinking episode is not likely to create lasting memory problems, alcoholism or regular heavy drinking is known to damage the brain to the point that it can no longer develop new memories as well. Short-term memory loss and blackouts are common among people who drink regularly.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that even moderate drinking leads to short-term cognitive impairment, with studies showing significantly greater brain shrinkage in alcoholics than in those who don’t drink heavily.
Not Getting Enough Sleep
If you’re not regularly getting the 7-8 recommended hours of sleep per night, your memory can suffer. During sleep, your brain processes information from the day and uses it to form memories. Scientists say that sleep is necessary for making memories stick, as without it, the brain has a hard time absorbing the information.
According to a 2011 study, participants who were good sleepers had much better memory consolidation than those who suffered from insomnia. Researchers also reported in 2013 that adults suffering from insomnia during the night experienced significantly worse memory the next day—55 percent worse.
In a large study involving over 15,000 participants followed for 14 years, researchers found that those who slept five hours or fewer per night (or nine hours or more) performed worse on memory and other brain tests than did those who regularly got seven to eight hours a night.
Concordia University also reported in 2019 that chronic insomnia disorder has a direct negative impact on cognitive function in people aged 45 and older, particularly on declarative memory, which is the memory of items and events.
Eating an Unhealthy Diet
Just like the body needs nutrients to function well, the brain does, too. Regular consumption of the so-called “Western diet,” which is rich in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates, has been associated with reduced cognitive function, cognitive decline, and even dementia.
Eating too many high-fat and high-sugar foods leads to “enduring alterations in brain regions involved in learning, memory, and reward,” according to a 2017 study. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital also reported that women who ate the most saturated fats from foods like red meat and butter performed worse on memory tests than women who ate the lowest amounts of these fats.
Eating a healthy diet, however, can protect you. In 2015, scientists reported that people who ate a good diet filled with fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, and not much red meat were less likely to experience declines in memory or thinking.
Smoking damages just about every part of the body, including the brain. Many studies have linked the habit with attention, memory and other cognitive problems.
In one 2016 study, for instance, researchers found that compared with non-smokers, people who smoked had a decrease in memory and cognitive function. And in 2013, researchers found that current smokers had a worse visual memory compared to nonsmokers.
Quitting smoking, on the other hand, can help. On a test of recollection ability, people who had quit smoking for 2.5 years performed 25 percent better than current smokers did.
Failing to Regularly Exercise
Exercise is wonderful for both the body and the mind and can stimulate focus and creative thought. A sedentary lifestyle, though, may actually damage the brain.
In 2018, scientists reported that sitting too much was linked to changes in a section of the brain critical for memory. More specifically, those who spent hours sitting tended to have thinner MTLs (medial temporal lobes) than those who were more active. MTL thinning could be a precursor to cognitive decline and dementia.
Meanwhile, exercise is associated with increased cognitive function. Not only does it help keep you fit—which can help you avoid brain damaging heart disease and diabetes—but it can also stimulate the release of growth factors that improve the health of brain cells. Some studies have even found that parts of the brain that control thinking and memory have greater volume in those who regularly exercise than in those who don’t.
Spending Too Much Time Alone
We now know that social connections are important for good brain health. Isolation, however, is not. In fact, we have evidence that social isolation can have negative physical effects on the brain.
In an animal study, researchers found that prolonged isolation leads to a decrease in myelin, which is the protective sheath that covers nerve cells in the brain. Lower myelin levels are associated with age-related cognitive decline.
In a 2009 study, scientists noted that humans “fare poorly when isolated,” and stated that loneliness was a risk factor for poorer overall cognitive performance and faster cognitive decline.
Using Technology Too Much
Many people are addicted to their smartphones these days, which may be bad news for our memories.
Recent research shows that when we have access to search engines, we remember fewer facts and less information because we know we can just google it. In one experiment, for example, participants were asked to remember a collection of statements, but half were told their work would be saved to a computer. The other half was told that the statements would soon be erased.
Later, when the scientists tested the participants’ memories of those statements, those who were told their work would be saved on the computer couldn’t remember them as well as those who were told they would be erased.
Our reliance on our smartphones is also negatively affecting our ability to remember events. In 2018, scientists found that using smartphones altered memories by taking participants “out of the moment.” People were so distracted by taking pictures that they found it more difficult to actually remember what they had seen.
Other studies have indicated that our increasing dependence on technology is changing the way our brains think and remember. We don’t yet know the ultimate effect this may have on memory.
Natural Ways to Improve Your Memory
Knowing what we know, we can take steps in our daily lives to improve memory. That includes adopting healthy habits that help protect the brain and incorporating brain-boosting supplements that can actually improve brain function related to memory.
1. Cut Back on the Saturated Fat, Sugar, and Refined Carbohydrates
Considering the studies mentioned above, it makes sense that we can keep the brain healthy by limiting high-fat and high-sugar foods and choosing more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
Refined carbohydrates are also a large part of our modern diet, but they break down quickly in the bloodstream. That spikes blood sugar levels and increases the risk of inflammation, which in turn, can damage memory. Limit your consumption of cakes, cookies, white rice, white pasta, and white bread, as well as packaged snacks.
2. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Studies have indicated that obesity can increase the risk of cognitive decline. In one 2016 study, scientists found that obesity actually caused changes to memory-associated genes in the brain. Excess fat also increases inflammation, which can damage the brain.
3. Get 7-8 Hours of Sleep Per Night
As noted above, sleep deprivation is associated with memory decline, so do your best to get the optimal 7-8 hours per night.
4. Be Careful with Alcohol
Too much alcohol damages the brain and can negatively impact your memory. It’s best to stick with the recommendations on alcohol intake, which is no more than one drink per day for women, and no more than two per day for men. (Men and women metabolize alcohol differently.)
5. Exercise Regularly
Exercise helps keep your brain healthy and working optimally. One study reported that even just 15 minutes of moderate exercise on a stationary bike improved cognitive performance.
6. Keep Your Social Connections Strong
It’s easy to lose touch with friends and family as we get older, but it’s important to maintain strong social connections. Volunteer, join a local community group, or take a class to find new friends, and make sure to stay in touch with those you care about.
Young people, too, need to make a point to regularly meet with friends in person. Social media does not provide the brain-boosting effects that real, face-to-face meetings do.
7. Try Memory-Boosting Nootropics
Nootropics are a category of supplements that help promote brain health. Some of these have been directly connected with improving memory. If you feel your memory isn’t performing as it should, you may want to talk to your doctor about trying one or more of the following.
- Panax Ginseng with Ginkgo Biloba: These natural herbs may help improve memory in healthy adults. In one 2000 study, researchers found that a supplement containing 60 mg of Ginkgo billoba extract and 100 mg of Panax ginseng extract helped significantly improve both working and long-term memory. Both of these can help increase levels of chemicals in the brain involved in learning and memory while protecting brain cells from damage.
- Bacopa Monnieri: This is an adaptogenic herb that helps reduce stress and may also provide cognitive benefits. It increases levels of acetylcholine in the brain, which is critical for memory storage and protects against free radical damage. In a 2001 study, researchers found that Bacopa monniera extract significantly improved visual processing speed, learning rate, and memory consolidation.
- Citicoline (CDP Choline): This is a combination of choline, an essential nutrient, and cytidine, a nootropic that may enhance brain energy. The two together help improve brain metabolism. In one study, researchers found that citicoline administered as a supplement over a period of four weeks improved memory performance in those with and without dementia.
- Huperzine A: Also called “Hup-A,” this is an alkaloid extracted from a type of moss called Huperzia serrata. It has such a positive effect on memory that it has been suggested as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. In 2013, researchers reported that it showed memory-enhancing properties and reduced impairment in attention/working memory. One study even found that Hub-A enhanced memory and learning performance in adolescent students.
- Yamabushitake: This is a type of mushroom known as “lion’s mane.” It works to improve brain function by enhancing the expression of the nerve growth factor, and by protecting neurons in the brain from damage. In one 2009 study, researchers found that subjects who took Yamabushitake supplements for 16 weeks demonstrated significantly increased scores on cognitive function tests.
- Tyrosine: Tyrosine is a natural amino acid found in foods like turkey, eggs, beef, soybeans, and seaweeds. It is important for the development of certain neurotransmitters in the brain and has been found in some studies to improve working memory. One study found that it was particularly helpful in those who were multitasking,
- Noopept: This is actually a drug that can be purchased as a brain-boosting supplement. It helps increase levels of glutamate in the brain, which is a neurotransmitter responsible for sending signals between nerve cells. Low levels of glutamate have been linked with diseases like Alzheimer’s. Animal studies have found that noopept can help speed up memory retrieval and boost compounds that promote brain-cell growth. Human studies have found that it can help people recover more quickly from brain injuries like stroke.
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With over 20 years as a professional writer/editor in the health and wellness industry, Colleen M. Story has authored thousands of articles for publications like “Healthline” and “Women’s Health;” worked with high-profile clients like Gerber Baby Products and Kellogg’s; and ghostwritten books on back pain, nutrition, healthy diet, and cancer recovery. She’s also an award-winning author of both novels and non-fiction books, and a frequent motivational speaker inspiring people from all walks of life to overcome modern-day challenges and find creative fulfillment. Find more at her author website and her LinkedIn profile, or follow her on Twitter.