A Neurologist’s Tips for Fighting Memory Loss and Alzheimer’s
If you’re over 50 and find yourself misplacing your keys, forgetting why you went into a room or trying to remember a familiar friend’s name, you may be worried that you’re developing Alzheimer’s disease.
“In America today, anyone over 50 lives in dread of the big A,” neuroscientist Dr. Richard Restak writes in his latest book, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening Your Mind.
Memory lapses are the single, most common complaints people over 55 raise with their doctors, according to Restak, who is 80 years old and still a clinical professor of neurology at George Washington University Medical Center in Washington, D.C. But much of what people describe turns out to be nothing to worry about, he said.
Forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, but that does not necessarily mean that older adults are developing Alzheimer’s disease, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
As you get older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. As a result, some people may have trouble learning new things, or they do not remember information as well as they once did or lose things like their glasses. These are signs of “mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems, like Alzheimer’s disease,” the NIA says.
Sometimes forgetfulness is not due to a memory problem but because people are just not paying attention, said Restak, a past president of the American Neuropsychiatric Association and author of more than 20 books on the human brain.
“Inattention is the biggest cause for memory difficulties,” Restak said. “It means you didn’t properly encode the memory.”
The good news is that you can improve your memory with practice, he said. Restak says one way to pay attention and improve your memory is through visualization. For instance, Restak said he recently had to memorize the name of a doctor, Dr. King. So, he visualized a male doctor “in a white coat with a crown on his head and a scepter instead of a stethoscope in his hand.”
Besides not paying attention, the NIA says certain medical conditions, medication side effects, and not eating healthy foods can cause memory problems. However, most problems should go away once a person gets treatment or stops taking medication, or starts eating more nutritious meals.
So, forgetting where you placed your car keys is not a cause for alarm. The real cause for concern is when you start finding your keys in your refrigerator or other unlikely places.
“That’s a little bit beyond forgetful,” Restock said.
Similarly, Restak said he noticed people in the early stages of dementia stop reading fiction because it’s too difficult to remember what the characters said or did a few chapters earlier. This is unfortunate, Restak said, because reading complex novels is a “valuable mental workout in itself.”
Our memory naturally begins to decline in our 30s, which is why Restak supports activities and exercises that strengthen memory. The following are some of Restak’s tips for developing and maintaining a healthy memory:
- Stop drinking alcohol by age 70, at the latest. Restak says older adults typically have fewer brain neurons than when they were younger. So, why risk them by drinking alcohol? “Alcohol is a very, very weak neurotoxin—it’s not good for nerve cells,” he said.
- Take a short afternoon nap. Sleep helps brain function and may help to prevent brain fog.
- Take care of any vision or hearing problems as soon as possible. When you find it difficult to read because you can’t see, chances are you will not learn much and end up being a “less interesting person to other people,” Restak theorizes. An inability to hear leaves you out of conversations and hobbies “that keep the cogs turning.” What this comes down to is socialization, the “most important part of keeping away Alzheimer’s and dementia, and keeping your memory,” Restak said.
- Create visual images for things you want to remember. Restak says he created a mental map of his neighborhood that includes his house, local library, and a restaurant he often goes to. So, as a way to remember to buy milk, Restak envisions his house as a carton of milk. To remember to buy bread, he envisions the library as full of loaves of bread instead of books, and to buy coffee, he envisions a giant cup of coffee spilling out of the restaurant.
- Create your own memory exercises. Restak suggests taking an everyday activity and turning it into a memory challenge. For instance, make a grocery list, memorize it, and then try to see the items in your mind. When you get to the store, do not automatically pull out your list; get your items based on your memory. Use your list only if necessary.
- Play games. Games are good to support your memory, Restak says. One of his favorite games is 20 Questions. With this game, a person thinks of a person, place, or object for the other person to guess. The person asks 20 questions that have yes-or-no answers. In order to guess the correct answer, the person has to remember all of the previous answers to the questions. This game can also be played with a group. One of Restak’s favorite memory games is writing down the names of the U.S. presidents starting with President Joe Biden and going back to say, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Another challenge is naming only the Democratic presidents or Republican presidents during that time. He also recommends naming the presidents in alphabetical order.
- Don’t completely rely on your smartphone or other technology. Storing everything on your phone means that “you don’t know it,” Restak said, which can erode your mental abilities. “Why bother to focus, concentrate and apply effort to visualize something when a cellphone camera can do all the work for you?” he wrote.
- Work with a mental health professional if you need to. Your emotional state plays a big role in your memory. For instance, among “people who are referred to neurologists for memory issues, one of the biggest causes is depression,” Restak said. Treating depression or improving your mood often restores memory.
Memory is very important because it is linked to who we are, it binds people together as they reminisce about a shared past, and past experience gives life meaning and texture, according to Restak.
“We are what we can remember,” Restak says. “The more things you can remember, the more clearly, the more full and enriched our personalities.”