How to Distinguish Between Normal Memory Decline and Something More Serious
Your memory is something you use all the time to do basic, everyday activities like pour yourself a cup of coffee, catch up on work emails from the day prior, and reminisce with your friends about the fun times you had last weekend. A strong memory is also connected with your sense of self, which is why experiencing a lag as you age can feel so unsettling. Still, some memory loss is considered normal with age, notes Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., a neurologist. "Our word recall, or our recollection of events, faces, names, or tasks, can, at times, seem out of our grasp," she says. "As we age, our bodies and brains manifest the brunt of our lives and cellular machinery is not as optimal."
Aging is a normal part of life, and it affects nearly every organ in our body. But as far as our thinkers are concerned, getting older causes brain cells to degenerate and the connections between these cells to deteriorate, notes Don Vaughn, Ph.D., a neuroscientist with the Department of Psychology at UCLA. "Like all cells in our body, brain cells eventually die, and when one dies that's involved in representing a memory, the strength of that memory will be reduced," he says. "Similarly, if the connections between brain cells representing memory are weakened over time, the memory will also fade, which can disrupt the network of neurons that hold a memory."
In addition to age, there are a variety of reasons for cognitive decline, including genetics, lifestyle, and environmental exposures. Other risk factors—that can influence not only the chance of memory loss, but also the severity—include diabetes, cardiovascular disease, infectious and toxin exposure, pro-inflammatory food choices, poor and chronic gut health, sleep disorders, and prolonged stress, notes Dr. Ruhoy.
The good news? Most memory decline is not a sign of something serious, but it can be. Dementia, an umbrella term for a set of symptoms related to loss of memory and judgement, among other things, can start off slowly and worsen through years and even decades, explains Dr. Ruhoy. Some signals that indicate your memory decline is more serious are: asking repeated questions; not being able to come up with words in your sentences; mixing up words when speaking; having trouble completing tasks in a timely manner (or at all); misplacing items in places of comfort, such as your home or workplace; and unexplained mood changes. While there's no magic pill to permanently stop this decline, especially if you are ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease or other dementia-related conditions, there are ways to strengthen your brain and memory as you age. Here, specialists share their best tips.
Stay Cognitively Active
In order to strengthen specific areas of your brain, you have to use them, notes Dr. Vaughn. "The brain recycles parts that aren't in use, so if you don't stay cognitively active by using your memory frequently, it's likely to lose it faster," he says. "Whether staying active means keeping intellectually engaged at work, reading, playing bridge or even 'brain games' is up to you, but whatever it is, don't stop—and maybe even do more."
Avoid Rough Contact Sports
Increasing research is finding a connection between contact sports, such as football, and neurological problems later in life—most notably chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). And the longer people play these sports, the more at risk they are for brain conditions. "Your brain cells don't like it when they slam into your skull at high speeds," says Dr. Vaughn. "The less knocking your head is exposed to, the longer your brain cells will likely stay alive."
Interact with Loved Ones
"The benefits of one's interpersonal social connections have only really come to light in the last few decades," says Dr. Vaughn. "There are potential effects on mood, heart disease, and you guessed it, the brain." Not only is interacting with others a core part of being human, but it's also likely to keep the brain active, he adds.
Consume a Gut-Healthy Diet
Nutrition often drives the health of our gut, but our microbiome can sometimes have a life on its own, explains Dr. Ruhoy, who is also a gut council member for Jetson Probiotics. In other words, your microbiome depends on many factors, including when and how you were born, what you ate early in life, and where you have lived. "Learning about your gut health is important, as so much is now understood about the relationship between the gut and the brain," she says. "Focusing on foods that are tolerant to your gut is an essential step, but it is also important to care for the gut lining so that it is a hospitable environment for healthy gut flora." She recommends taking a high-quality probiotic and focusing on gut-friendly foods like yogurt, kefir, miso, kimchi, and almonds.