Forgetful? Identify the 11 Risk Factors Harming Your Memory

UPDATED: January 8, 2024
PUBLISHED: November 13, 2017

In this excerpt from Dr. Daniel Amen’s new book, Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss, and Remember What Matters Most, Amen explores the immutable connection between a healthy brain and a strong memory by asking readers to consider this question: How is your memory? While many will chalk up forgetfulness to old age, Amen says that’s not normal, and he highlights foods, medications and activities that may be harming our memory.

Related: How to Keep Your Brain Healthy

At 18, I was trained as an infantry medic in the US Army, where my love of medicine was born. While still in the service, I became an X-ray technician and developed a passion for medical imaging. As our professors used to say, “How do you know unless you look?” Then, when I was a second-year medical student, someone I loved tried to kill herself. I arranged for her to meet with an outstanding psychiatrist and came to realize that if he helped her (which he did), he would ultimately help her children and grandchildren, too, because they would be influenced by someone who was happier and more stable. I was drawn to psychiatry because I realized its potential to change generations of people for the better.

The truly exciting news is that you can start to change your brain and memory, beginning today.

Yet psychiatry then, and even now, remains the only medical specialty that virtually never looks at the organ it treats—the brain. Frustrated, I decided to learn more about brain imaging tools, which have revolutionized my life and the lives of my patients, coworkers, family members, and friends. I first learned about SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) during a lecture conducted by the chief of medicine at our local hospital in 1991. Convinced that such imaging could provide invaluable information, my colleagues and I adopted the technique and began building a database of brain scans related to behavior. Today it is the world’s largest database, totaling more than 135,000 scans on patients from 111 countries taken over the past 25-plus years.

Ultimately, the scans led me to five conclusions:

1. Brain health is central to all health and success in life. When your brain works right, you are happier, healthier (because you make better decisions), wealthier (again because you make better decisions), and more successful in everything you do.

2. When your brain is troubled, for whatever reason, you are likely to be sadder, sicker, poorer, and less successful.

3. You are not stuck with the brain you have. You can make it better, even if you have been bad to it—and I can prove it. This has been the most exciting lesson of my professional life, and it is one of the main topics in this book.

Related: How Dr. Daniel Amen Repairs the Brain with Healthy Living 

4. To save your brain, you have to get your mind right. Too many people give themselves excuses to stay sick. I call them the “little lies” that keep them fat, depressed, and feeble-minded. Here are the most common justifications I’ve heard over the years, along with my responses to patients.

5. You are in a war for the health of your brain. Just about every- where you go, you are offered toxic food that will kill you early. The real “weapons of mass destruction” are highly processed, pesticide- sprayed, high-glycemic, low-fiber food-like substances in plastic containers. Such fare is destroying the health of America: Two-thirds of us are overweight or obese; 50 percent are diabetic or prediabetic; and 60 percent are hypertensive or prehypertensive—all conditions that damage the brain. In addition, news channels repeatedly pour toxic images into our minds, stoking our fear that disaster is every- where and constantly exposing our brains to stress chemicals that can damage our brains’ memory centers.

Memory Rescue is based on a simple idea: The best way to sharpen your memory, reverse brain aging, and prevent AD is to eliminate, prevent, or treat all of the risk factors that steal your mind, represented by the mnemonic (a memory device) BRIGHT MINDS.

B – Blood flow: hypertension or prehypertension, stroke, cardiovascular disease, cholesterol problems, erectile dysfunction, infrequent exercise (less than twice a week)

R – Retirement/Aging: risk increases with age (over 50); lack of new learning—when you stop learning, your brain starts dying

I – Inflammation: gum disease, high homocysteine or C- reactive protein (CRP) levels in your blood, low omega-3 fatty acids

G – Genetics: a family member with Alzheimer’s disease, any other form of dementia, or Parkinson’s disease; having the e4 version of the APOE gene

Related: 6 Tips to Become a Memory Master

H – Head Trauma: a history of head injuries with or without loss of consciousness; playing contact sports, even without a concussion

T – Toxins: alcohol or drug abuse, exposure to toxins in the environment (mold, pollution) or personal products, cancer chemotherapy, etc.

M – Mental Health: chronic stress, depression, attention deficit disorder/ attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia I – Immunity/Infection Issues: chronic fatigue syndrome; autoimmune issues, such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis; untreated infections, such as Lyme disease, syphilis, or herpes

N – Neurohormone Deficiencies: low levels of thyroid, testosterone (males and females), estrogen and progesterone (females), DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone); high cortisol levels

D – Diabesity: diabetes, prediabetes, and obesity

S – Sleep Issues: chronic insomnia and sleep apnea

For three decades, my staff and I have been at war, too, seeking to restore the mental health and brain health of thousands of people who’ve come to Amen Clinics. Just a few years ago, my staff and I began referring to those patients who took up the fight themselves as brain warriors.

I’ll tell you how to become a brain warrior and a memory rescuer, too. That’s because one of the most important symptoms of an unhealthy brain is memory problems. Once your memory starts to slip, everything in your life becomes harder, including your health, relationships, work, and finances. Such problems can even strip you of your independence. Let me be clear: I love my children very much, but I never want to live with them. I never want to be a burden to them, and I would prefer they not make decisions for me. I don’t want them taking my driver’s license from me or deciding what I’ll wear and eat. If that is true for you, too, it means you need to think about your brain now, not 20 years from now. The truly exciting news is that you can start to change your brain and memory, beginning today.

Related: The Brain Warrior’s Way

Excerpted from Memory Rescue: Supercharge Your Brain, Reverse Memory Loss, and Remember What Matters Most by Daniel G. Amen, M.D., published by Tyndale, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2017 by Daniel G. Amen, M.D.

Daniel G. Amen, MD, is a double board-certified psychiatrist, professor and 10-time New York Times best-selling author. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on using brain-imaging tools to help optimize and treat his patients. Amen Clinics have one of the highest published success rates for patients. His research was listed as one of the “Top 100 Stories in Science for 2015” by Discover magazine. He has written and hosted 11 highly popular shows about the brain for public television.