Hidden Causes of Memory Loss
Majid Fotuhi, MD, PhD
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
You've forgotten where you put your glasses... the name of your second cousin from Detroit... and the ending of a movie you saw just last week. Memory lapses are an annoyance, but when they occur more frequently than usual, many people wonder if it is Alzheimer's disease.
Relax. The dreaded brain disease actually is responsible for only 10% of memory problems. In fact, most causes of memory difficulties can actually be corrected.
Memory Enemy #1: Depression
The most common cause of failing memory is depression. This widespread emotional disorder often slows recall. Example: You can't remember a book title or the name of an acquaintance, but it comes back to you if someone provides a hint or you see a picture of the person.
Although Alzheimer's disease actually destroys parts of the brain, depression causes the cells that activate memory to become sluggish. That's because neurotransmitters that carry messages between the cells (especially serotonin and norepinephrine) are in short supply in depressed people. In other words, the memory machinery is still there, but it's not working well.
Depression can strike at any age - and all too often, it goes undiagnosed and untreated. Why: Those who are so severely depressed that they can't work or keep up their normal relationships know that something is wrong. With mild to moderate depression, however, sufferers are able to go about their business, pretending that everything is fine even though life has lost much of its sparkle.
Look for these subtle signs...
Sadness. You can't shake your low mood even when you're at work, with friends or at leisure.
Lack of pleasure. Things you used to enjoy no longer feel good.
Apathy. You're not as interested in life... in your friends and family...etc.
Hopelessness. You can't imagine that things will get better.
On the other hand, depression is occasionally an early symptom of Alzheimer's. In this case, mood improves with treatment, but memory remains impaired.
Cardiovascular disease impairs blood flow to the brain, thus reducing the oxygen and nutrients reaching this vital organ. Long before visible changes occur, tiny parts of the brain may be damaged by mini-strokes (small blood vessel blockages).
- Tip-off: Failing memory is accompanied by other symptoms, such as slowed thinking and walking.
- Solution: If cholesterol is high, adopt a healthful lifestyle that includes a low-fat diet and exercise. Take medication, if needed.
- Important: Also correct high blood pressure aggressively with diet, exercise and medication. In one European study, memory improved when blood pressure returned to normal levels.
Stress stimulates the brain in the short run. Attention is heightened, and memory actually may improve. But chronic stress exhausts the brain, causing loss of focus and memory trouble. Problems are compounded when stress interferes with sleep. Memory is one of the first casualties of inadequate rest.
To reduce stress, include a relaxation technique, such as meditation or deep breathing, in your daily schedule. Work on changing your perspective. If you feel overwhelmed, ask yourself whether everything you're doing is truly necessary. Remember, your health is at stake.
If you're suffering from one condition, such as stress, high blood pressure, etc., the damage to your memory may be too slight to notice. But put them together, and you have a problem. Every condition you correct sharpens your memory.
Other brain-strengthening practices that reduce overall wear and tear on the brain...
Exercise. Regular physical activity improves blood flow to the brain and reduces stress. It also stimulates the release of nerve growth factors, proteins in the brain that help brain cells heal minor injuries and promote new connections between brain cells. Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity three or more times weekly. Exercise intensity should be at least at the level of brisk walking.
Stay mentally active. Memorizing your grocery list, taking a dance class, doing crossword puzzles, etc. tones brain cells in the same way that physical activity tones muscles.
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