by Dr. Julie Schwartzbard, MD
The list of factors and conditions that can impair your memory is extensive but remarkably, most of them can be changed, or are firmly under your control. The simplest changes cause the most noticeable results — improving your diet, supplementing with key nutrients, doing regular exercise, and getting plenty of sleep.
Find out now if your memory is being helped or hurt by the choices you’re making every day.
The aging process can harm certain aspects of memory and others not at all. Studies have shown that older adults, in general, show a gradual decline in working memory, also known as short term memory, or STM. Information processing speed and the ability to concentrate in the face of distractions also decreases as we get up in years. However, plenty of people retain their steel-trap memories well into their 70s, 80s, and beyond.
Being distracted by something during your brain’s memory-making process can prevent the information in a STM from becoming a long-term memory, or an LTM. Distractions interrupt the working memory part of STM, which only holds onto a limited amount of information even under the best circumstances.
Most of us have experienced memory lapses when we stay up too late but the amount of sleep you get isn’t as important is good it is. In a recent study in the UK, people with poor quality sleep had physical changes — shrinkage, atrophy and deterioration — to key parts of their brains involved in memory. When you’re asleep your brain’s hippocampus replays and processes everything that happened to you that day for the neocortex. The neocortex then reviews and processes that information so you can recall it in the future. If you don’t sleep well, memories get stuck in the hippocampus instead of making it to the prefrontal cortex, and that leads to forgetfulness and difficulty remembering names.
Being deficient in key vitamins and other nutrients interferes with optimal memory. Science has shown that not getting enough of vitamins B 12, B1, B6 and B9 leads to memory loss, and the evidence is also mounting that low vitamin D is associated with cognitive impairment.
Your hormones carry essential messages that control and influence how your body and brain function. That’s why imbalances can wreak havoc on both the memory-making and recall processes.
- Thyroid disorders and imbalances
Low or sluggish thyroid function can decrease production of certain memory-regulating hormones, sometimes leading to temporary dementia-like symptoms.
- Sex hormone imbalances
- In women: women near menopause often report having memory issues and fuzzy thinking, and research confirms an association between the two. One US study found that the more hot flashes a woman has, the worse her “recollection of names, words, paragraphs and stories.” Unfortunately, women are so accustomed to enduring menopause symptoms that they don’t make this connection and blame themselves.
- In men: testosterone levels decrease as men get older just as memory issues begin to pop up. Some research shows that low testosterone may be associated with cognitive changes like memory loss. We don’t know yet if testosterone replacement therapy can improve memory.
The risk of memory issues increases if a person’s parents or siblings have developed Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. This risk stays low as long as you don’t carry a genetic component of these dementias. If Alzheimer’s runs in the family, patients will typically have noticeable symptoms before the age of 65.
Since memory is considered “the most fragile mental function” it’s easily affected by your diet and food choices, particularly those that are long term patterns. Diets high in animal proteins and/or saturated fat can affect your memory. Low levels of “good” cholesterol, or HDL high-density lipoproteins, may raise your risk for memory issues and dementia later in life.
Lack of exercise
Studies show that not exercising can affect memory performance and contributes to diseases that raise the risk of dementias and other loss of memory.
Ongoing pain — no matter the cause — has been shown to disrupt both memory and attention.
Certain prescription drugs, like benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax, etc.) and some antidepressants can
cloud memory. Other less obvious drugs sometimes affect memory negatively, at least in certain people. These include statins, antihistamines like Benadryl, Tylenol PM, high blood pressure meds, steroid medications, and sleeping pills. No matter what prescribed drugs you’re taking, don’t stop taking them medication without speaking to your doctor first.
Smoking tobacco drastically reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain with sobering effects. Smokers “lose one third of their everyday memory as compared to non-smokers,” according to one study. This effect disappears if you quit smoking.
Both alcohol and drug overuse and abuse can impair your memory.
Illnesses and medical conditions that affect circulation reduce the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain, including heart disease and stroke. Obviously Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia (of which there are many types) can ruin one’s ability to remember. Surprisingly, urinary tract infections can lead to confusion and memory issues in older people.
Depression and anxiety have been linked to short-term memory issues. In most cases the effects are considered temporary and reversible if the depression or anxiety problem is resolved. A condition called “pseudodementia” can occur in people following the onset of depression, along with dementia-like symptoms like forgetfulness and disorientation. Other emotional situations can also reduce memory abilities, including grief, loneliness and traumatic events.
Stress has diverse effects on memory: it can heighten it under some conditions and impair normal memory function under others. Some studies show that the stress hormone, cortisol, can be the source of problem with memory retrieval aside from the stress itself.
Traumatic brain injury can wipe out memory both temporarily and permanently, depending on the natural and extensiveness of the damage.
If forgetfulness is becoming an issue for you, learn more about the nutrients your brain needs for good memory function.