Simply defined, your memory is the faculty of your mind by which information is encoded, stored and retrieved. It is therefore an information processing system with long term memory, short term memory and other specific functions that give rise to descriptions and further definitions like descriptive, episodic, and declarative. I will leave it to you to explore these terms that are readily found on the internet. I will confine this article to what contributes to memory loss and what if anything can affect your memory in a positive way.
I should emphasize that your family medical practitioner is equipped, or should be, to make an assessment of your memory loss as it relates to specific illnesses such as Alzheimers, Parkinsons Disease, mixed Dementia, Diabetes and others such as aging with mild cognitive disorder. Treatment of an underlying condition is essential in the evaluation of memory loss and its specific remedies that may be available. This information in no way is meant to replace appropriate evaluation and medical treatment.
There are many claims made daily on the Internet and in various reports regarding the effect of vitamins and other supplements regarding enhancing memory whether caused by old age or various medical conditions. I will attempt to report on clinical and evidence-based information, but some of my anecdotal experiences may influence my thinking on the topic, and I will indicate this as needed.
Age related memory loss –
Stress Reduction: An article in the British Medical Journal suggests that chronic stress with its concomitant exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol in humans can impair memory. Stress contributes to anxiety and depression which interfere with memory processing.
Physical activity is likely to increase cerebral blood flow which in turn promotes nerve cell growth and is thought by most clinicians to be protective against Alzheimer’s disease in later life. Exercise also produces “brain derived neurotropic factor”, known as BDNF, which preserves brain cells and promotes growth. I also personally subscribe to the theory that “executive control”, the monitoring, planning and scheduling of mental tasks, improves memory when performed in association with aerobic exercise. There is some evidence that exercising after learning something new helps you to remember it long term. In the Journal NEUROLOGY, there is a report that moderate to intense exercise can slow brain aging by as much as 10 years.
There is a study indicating that 20 minutes of leg muscle exercise, in particular, enhanced long term memory by a significant margin. This is likely related to the increased production of BDNF in both muscle and brain. I am fond of saying that “sitting is the new smoking” and so I recommend walking more every chance you get.
Healthy Diet: Obesity related conditions increase the risk for memory loss and general cognitive decline. Epidemiology studies show that while some fats, such as olive oil, may benefit brain health, lower fat diets in young and middle aged adults may reduce the risk of disorders in later life.
Dr. Steven Pratt, author of “Super Foods, RX” points to these foods as memory enhancing: nuts and seeds, avocados, deep water fish such as salmon, blueberries, (which he calls “brainberries”) lentils and other beans. Dark chocolate, freshly brewed tea and whole grains. The brain is particularly affected by free radicals and these foods have high anti-oxidative benefits.
Drug related memory loss –
Many drugs have side effects that result in long term and/or short term memory loss and this should be pointed out by the prescriber so that symptoms may be observed by the patient or family members.
Benzodiazepines: examples are, by trade name, Xanax, Librium and others. Long term memory is affected, subsequent to ingestion, because events are not transferred from short term to long term storage. Patients are often unaware of this occurrence, and may depend on it being pointed out to them.
Anticholinergic drugs: These are the acid reducers such as Pepcid, Zantac and, particularly, the proton pump inhibitors like Omeprazole which are non- prescription drugs and used for “heartburn.” They should not be used for prolonged periods because of memory loss and other serious (bone fracture) side effects. These drugs are also used for incontinence with the same side effects.
Cholesterol lowering drugs: Statins in particular have been known to affect memory and learning in a negative way.
Anticonvulsants, muscle relaxants and Narcotics: have been shown to increase the risk of memory loss.
Parkinson’s medications affect signaling pathways in the brain and can cause memory loss that may be associated with delusional and compulsive behavior.
Antihypertensive drugs, particularly Betablockers, by interfering with Epinephrine and Norepinephrine which are chemical messengers in the brain.
Antihistamines: Allergy medications are also anticholinergic, as above, but require special mention because of their wide usage.
Sleeping pills: such as Ambien and related drugs have been reported as causing memory loss.
Diabetes medications- Metformin, a commonly prescribed type 2 Diabetes drug, with off label indications as well, has been associated with memory problems. This is likely because it interferes with the action of vitamin B-12….requiring concomitant additional doses of this Vitamin as indicated below.
Vitamin and Mineral deficiencies –
The vitamin deficiency most often associated with memory loss is vitamin B-1 or Thiamine, which is involved in production of required neurotransmitters in the brain. The deficiency of this, as well as vitamin B-12, B-6, and B-9, are linked to early onset of dementia and memory loss according to the Linus Pauling Institute.
Recent studies by NIH, report that the majority of dementia patients were also deficient in vitamin D. This may be an incidental finding that requires more research to establish a direct link to cognitive decline. While vitamin B-12 can be measured in patient’s serum, I have seen normal levels in patients that had other reasons for not utilizing the adequate amounts in their blood.
A word about MAGNESIUM: Some years ago, there was a research article, published in the MIT Journal “Neuron” entitled “Magnesium May Reverse Middle Age Memory Loss”. The study suggested that, at least in animals, Magnesium helps neurotransmission and that increasing its concentration in the brain allows for more meaningful input. The only Magnesium supplement that I believe raises the brains magnesium levels is a patented form known as MAGNESIUM L-THREONINE, or “Magtein” which has shown promise in animals regarding tissue and cell membrane penetration. The research on Magtein was performed by a group of scientists at MIT and it indicates, at least in animals, increased cognitive function. There are many other magnesium preparations having a variety of effects on other conditions not discussed here with their minimal brain absorption making them less suitable for the indication we are discussing here.
Sleep disorders –
The Journal of Neuroscience reports that sleep apnea affects navigational memory, such as “where did I put my keys?” a result of oxygen deprivation during a fitful nights sleep.
Since memory loss may be attributable to a variety of causes as indicated above, it must be clear to the reader that there is no specific single “cure” for the condition. In order to be sure no possible cause is overlooked, when visiting a health care provider a patient must address all possible causes and act as his/her own advocate.
This essay on memory is by no means intended to be all-inclusive as there is a vast amount of medical and anecdotal information on this topic available to you. I hope it will however stimulate you to discuss your memory issues with your health provider because cognitive decline is not necessarily a requirement for healthy aging.