Q: Is there a scale of what’s “normal” in terms of memory loss? For example, if I’m having trouble remembering people’s names but never forget where my keys are, is that just regular aging?
A: Yes, some moments of forgetfulness are a result of aging and nothing to worry about. Normal memory loss starts earlier than you’d expect. After about age 30, memory processing speed slows about 5 percent every 10 years; we lose about 5 percent of IQ points every decade; and the size of our hippocampal area shrinks about 5 percent every 10 years—a larger hippocampus is associated with a better memory. All of this can happen as a result of lifestyle factors such as how inactive you are, stress and chronic conditions such as heart disease. (Although new research implies that it might not be declining brainpower but rather, as we accumulate more information through the years, the more data we have to sift through, naturally slowing the process.)
So drawing a blank on someone’s name, occasionally misplacing your keys or pausing to find the right word is normal. Not knowing how to find your way home? That’s worrisome and could signal a serious condition like dementia, Alzheimer’s, a blood clot or even depression.
How can you tell the difference? If you or a loved one experiences any of the following, it’s time to see a doctor for an evaluation.
› Asking the same questions over and over or repeating the same stories
› Getting lost in places you know well or not being able to follow directions
› Becoming more confused about people, times and places
› Frequently forgetting words or misusing words
› Not taking care of yourself: eating poorly, not bathing, being unsafe
But there is proof that you can forestall the normal brain aging process. One of our favorite studies: research on Harvard physicians, many of whom lost 5 percent of their IQ points every 10 years after age 40 (the study started in 1952). The good news is that 25 percent of those physicians never lost any IQ points, proving that brain aging isn’t inevitable. Recent research has shown that you can build a bigger hippocampus and better memory by, for example, managing stress, doing cardiovascular exercise intensely (check with your doc first), eating better, enjoying music, having friends and a purpose in life, and being intellectually stimulated. Keep reading to find out exactly how to support your mind naturally.
Q: Are there foods or supplements I should take that can protect my brain when it comes to aging? Are there any foods or drinks I should avoid to keep my brain smart?
A: Absolutely—fish, for starters. More than 50 percent of your brain is made of up “structural fat” that helps your brain process faster. At least half of this structural fat should be a fat called DHA, which you get from cold-water fatty fish such as salmon and ocean trout, supplements, or algae. Fish get their DHA from feeding on algae; eating 5.25 ounces of salmon will meet your goal of 900 mg a day. Research has shown that amount can help 55-plus-year-olds’ brains function three to six years younger.
The fat your brain doesn’t want? Saturated fat. Getting more than 4 grams at any one meal or snack can “turn on” inflammatory genes that can gunk up your brain and slow memory in the way plaque can clog arteries. We call this condition vascular dementia, and it develops when the brain’s neurons become inflamed, restricting oxygen and blood flow, resulting in accelerated memory loss. To help prevent it, cut back on high-sat-fat foods like red meat and full-fat dairy as well as foods made with palm or coconut oil.
Refined carbs and added sugars are also linked to cognitive decline. A recent small study of healthy adults and adults with mild cognitive impairment tested the effects of two diets. One was the “high diet,” which was high in saturated fat (at least 25 percent of the diet) and simple carbohydrates like white pasta and foods with added sugars (a glycemic index greater than 70). The other was a “low diet,” which was low in saturated fat (less than 7 percent of the diet) with fewer simple carbs (a glycemic index less than 55). After a month, those on the low diet had lower cholesterol, lower insulin levels, less oxidative damage in the brain and—drumroll, please—improved visual memory!
Q: If I play a game of pickup basketball or take a dance class, I sometimes feel like my brain got as much of a workout as my body. Could that be true—are there forms of exercise that are better for your brain?
A: You are correct! Sports that require changes in direction and balance improve memory function best, but any type of cardiovascular activity is also great. If your doc says your heart isn’t up to an intense cardiovascular activity like basketball, then do activities that require balance—pingpong or dancing, for example.
One reason exercise is such a potent brain-booster is that it fuels the creation of new neurons, called neurogenesis, in the hippocampus part of the brain, which is command central for memory and learning. Exercise, especially cardio, can also trigger the formation of new blood vessels, which improves the circulation of oxygen and nutrients. In a two-year study of nearly 4,000 adults aged 55 and older, those who engaged in moderate (three or fewer times a week) or high (more than three times a week) physical activity—walking, biking, swimming, gardening—were much less likely to experience cognitive impairment when doing things like reciting the months of the year in reverse.
Finally, you can give your brain a workout doing leisure activities, too—pursuits such as gardening, playing board games and even traveling—anything requiring mental stimulation.
Q: I’m impressed with memory champions who can memorize hundreds of words in a few minutes. Are they savants, or do they use tricks that we mortals can use to improve our memories?
A: Yes and YES! Memory champions can be savants, or they can just take a course like we did with brain expert Majid Fotuhi, M.D., Ph.D., author of The Memory Cure. In less than an hour, we learned how to remember 40 objects forward and backward. We never thought we were that good! And we bet you can learn to do so, too.
Train Your Brain
The best ways to boost your hippocampus size—and hence, your memory—is by exercising, eating right and managing stress. But you can also give your gray matter a workout with brain games. Here are a few websites we like for boosting brainpower.
–Lumosity.com. You select which aspects of memory development and mental acuity you want to improve—like remembering names or the locations of objects—and the site develops a personalized, science-backed “training program” for you. A few exercises are free with the initial sign-up, but you have to pay a monthly ($14.94) or annual ($5.33, promotional price) fee to access the full mental training program.
–DoctorOz.com/exercise-your-brain. You can play five Lumosity games for free here. The exercises focus on memory, speed, impulse control, language and productivity.
-AARP. Go to AARP.org/health/brain-health/brain_games for nine games that will fire those brain neurons.
-You can also check out an amazing system for remembering names, why you went to the store, and more at SUCCESS.com/Jim-Kwik.