Our memories make us unique. They are stored in different parts of the brain. We talk about the short-term and long-term memory and the brain stores these information differently.
As we age, the blood supply to the brain decreases and with it, the ability to deliver the nutrients necessary to support cognition. Brain cells die systematically and the body produces less of the chemicals needed by the brain to function optimally. This process begins quite early in the life of an individual, usually in the mid-twenties and accelerates in the fifties and sixties. As we are getting older, these physical changes affect the way memories are stored and retrieved. Aging does not usually affect the short-term memory. We also do not forget ancient memories or the skills that we have learned and performed over a long time. We do not forget wisdom or the knowledge acquired from our life experience, and we do not forget how to learn new things, although it may take a bit longer to do so. We may, however, forget our appointments, or what we did or said just two days ago or last week. We may forget details of a conversation we had recently, or personal details of people we know. We may forget things we were supposed to do or buy, or misplace our belongings and forget where we put them.
For many people such memory lapses are considered to be the normal part of aging, but they do not have to be so. There are many ways to improve the memory, concentration, and learning skills. We do not have to resign ourselves to processes that can be reversed to a considerable degree. The brain is capable of producing new brain cells and new neural connections at any age. With a little nutritional help and self-discipline, one can improve his or her cognitive skills enhancing at the same time the overall quality of life.
There are many factors that play a role in the way our memories are formed and retrieved. Stress and malnutrition may affect our memories independently from the aging process. Hormonal imbalance, especially during the menopause, may also seriously affect memory of aging women. To a great degree these problems can be alleviated with nutrition, supplementation, and memory training therapy.
Stress management is very important as the stress hormone cortisol has the capacity to negatively impact memory. Scientists found out that cortisol shrinks the dendrites impairing the communication between neurons in the brain. Fortunately, when stress is under control and the levels of cortisol decline, dendrites regenerate and return to their optimal function. The importance of sleep cannot be underestimated. Sleep plays important role in memory consolidation. Insufficient sleep affects learning as well as some memory tasks.
Food for thought
Like every other cell in the body, brain cells need a steady supply of nutrients and oxygen. Our life styles can affect our cerebral function. We can either deprive our brains of vital nutrients, or deliver everything the brain needs in order to function properly. Various studies suggest that nutrition rich in vitamins and antioxidants may help preserve cognitive function and slow or even reverse memory decline. Certain foods are considered to be perfect memory boosters. They contain high amounts of memory enhancing nutrients:
- Walnuts are rich in the essential omega-3 fatty acids which are the absolutely necessary food for the brain. Insufficient amounts of omega-3 in the body are related to the diminished cognitive function.
- Cold water fish such as salmon, halibut, and mackerel is rich in the vital omega-3 essential fatty acids. Adding fish to our diets does not only prevent us from heart disease and stroke, but also considerably improves our mood and memory function.
- Blueberries contain anthocyanin, a compound that can boost the neurons activity by amplifying the signals that are necessary to activate processes responsible for the memory function.
- Red onions contain flavonoid fisetin which is known to stimulate the pathways responsible for the long-term memory. They also contain quercetin and anthocyanin, two compounds that are known to enhance memory.
- Apples are well known for their health improving qualities. They are also well researched memory boosters. Apples and apple juice prevent decline of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain.
- Grapes, especially the Concord variety and pure juice made of them were found in a recent study to support learning and memory function in adults with early memory loss symptoms. Persons who drunk the pure Concord juice demonstrated improved short-term memory retention and spatial, non-verbal memory. This effect was attributed to the high amount of antioxidants in Concord grapes.
- Cruciferous vegetables were shown in a recent Harvard study to improve our memory function. Vegetables such a broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage seem to slow dawn the age-related memory decline and improve the overall cognitive function.
- Leafy green vegetables such as Swiss chard, spinach, and kale, are rich in Vitamin B9 also known as folic acid or folate. Vitamin B9 helps reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. It is necessary to break down the amino acid homocysteine which is toxic to the nerve cells.
There are many scientifically tested nutrients that can considerably improve memory and prevent memory decline. There are many products on the market containing memory boosting herbs and nutrients. Some of them deliver the combination of nutrients that act in synergy, others use a single herb. Depending on one's condition and the overall health, it may be necessary to supplement for a longer period of time in order to see considerable results. Below is the list of most important nutrients and herbs that can be used to improve memory and learning.
- Posphatidyl choline (PC) is a precursor to acetylcholine in the brain. Acetylcholine is the key chemical for memory and its deficiency is considered to be the most common cause for deteriorating memory. Eating foods rich in PC, such as egg yolks and sardines, or supplementing with lecithin granules can considerably improve memory function and learning.
- Phosphatidyl serine (PS) is a phospholipid that is an essential part of cell membranes in the body. The highest concentration of PS are found in the brain where it is believed to play a role in preserving and improving cognitive function in aging adults. It is believed that PS plays a key role in the communication between cells. Studies suggest that people in their fifties may not be able to synthesize sufficient amounts of PS and may have to supplement in order to preserve their memory function. People with learning difficulties and age related memory impairment profit greatly from supplementation with PS.
- Quercetin is a flavonoid with strong antioxidant properties. Studies demonstrated that quercetin may be able to prevent age related memory impairment as well as the outbreak of Alzheimer's disease. Quercetin has the ability to inhibit the formation of amyloid beta protein. It can also destabilize the existing amyloid beta protein. Amyloid beta protein is the main constituent of the amyloid plaque in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease.
- DMAE is a precursor to choline that easily crosses the brain-blood barrier. It helps the brain to accelerate the production of acetylcholine that is indispensable for optimal memory function.
- CoQ10 is an enzyme that naturally occurs in the body. Its production diminishes with age. Studies demonstrated that CoQ 10 can considerably slow down, but does not actually cure, the progress of dementia in people affected by the Alzheimer's disease.
- Omega-3 are the essential fatty acids indispensable for the optimal memory function. Omega-3 helps curb inflammation in the brain that may be responsible for memory impairment and the Alzheimer's disease.
- Vitamin B12 is a nutrient found in meat, fish, and dairy products, especially yogurt. It is also manufactured by the bacteria in the human intestines. Vitamin B12 has many functions in the body. Among others, it is essential for the metabolism of the nerve cells and necessary for the optimal health of the entire nervous system. Studies demonstrated that vitamin B12 may prevent the age related brain volume loss in older people. Adequate blood levels of this nutrient may prevent age-related memory impairment.
- Ginko biloba has been used in Chinese Traditional Medicine for thousands of years to improve memory function and treat dementia. The herb improves micro circulation in the body and helps deliver oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Studies demonstrated that ginko biloba is safe and very effective in treating symptoms of mild dementia, but are rather inconclusive about its function in improving memory of healthy, young adults.
- Huperzine A is an extract of a plant Huperzia serrata or club moss. This herb has a long tradition in China and has been used to successfully enhance memory. Studies demonstrated that Huperzine A interferes with the enzyme acetylcholinesterase that is responsible for the break down of acetylcholine making acetylcholine available in the brain. Acetylcholine is involved in memory and learning and its shortage in the brain is one of the characteristics of Alzheimer's disease.
- Vinpocetine is an extract of Vinca minor or periwinkle. It has the ability to improve the blood flow and circulation. Like ginko biloba, it helps to deliver oxygen and nutrients to the brain. It also enhances the energy production in the brain cells. Studies demonstrated that vinpocetine supplements improve concentration, learning, and memory recall.
Aging brain needs stimulation! Studies demonstrated that people who know how to speak a foreign language may add as many as 40 years to their cognitive health! It does not matter whether they learned the language as children or much later in their lives. Although it may be more difficult to master a language in our 50s or 60s, it is never too late to give it a try.
Curiosity kills boredom. Activities such as reading, creative writing, or puzzle solving may help delay the age related memory loss, especially if they are performed daily.
Pathological changes in memory
There are, however, pathological changes in memory that are not the part of a normal aging process. A person may forget things that he or she was doing repeatedly over a longer period of time, or be unable to recall complex processes. There may be a difficulty in learning new things or difficulty making choices because the alternative solutions have been forgotten or do not appear at all in a person's mind. A person may forget things more often and has a difficulty to keep a track of what is going on. These and similar memory problems may indicate the onset of Alzheimer's disease and have to be taken seriously.
Although Alzheimer's disease affects aging individuals, it should not be considered as an inevitable consequence of aging. Not all aging people develop Alzheimer's disease. There are many elderly people who stay active and have rather good memories. Many writers and scientists, for instance, retain their ability to think clearly and creatively, to form new memories, and to remember the details they need for their work, until old age. Research demonstrated that healthy, well-nourished, intellectually active people show no signs of deteriorating memory. It must be understood that mental decline is not an inevitable sign of aging and can be reversed. We can boost memory and retain alertness at any age. Nutrition, physical exercise, and intellectual challenge are the vital elements of cognitive health.
By Dominique Allmon
*Information in this article is for educational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose or cure a disease.
*Information in this article is for educational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose or cure a disease.
How to Prevent Age-Related Memory Loss by Dominique Allmon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.