Research tells us that our brains shrink slightly as we grow older. Because of this it is normal to begin to notice some memory lapses as well as some other cognitive decline. It might be forgetting where you put your keys, to return a phone call, or what you wanted at the store. Some people even call these "senior moments."
Because of the higher incidence of memory problems in the aging population – Alzheimer's and other types of dementia – it is good to be proactive about taking care of the memory you have.
Before I give you three easy strategies to protect and improve your brain power, it is helpful to understand a few things about your memory.
There are different types of memory
You have three types of memory to take care of:
- Sensory – sensations you experience like walking in the rain.
- Short-term – working memory like remembering a phone number.
- Long-term – stored over time and contributes to your personality.
Short-term memory is the hardest of the three types of memory to recall. If you have a family member with memory problems, you may notice she has difficulty telling you what she had for lunch but can tell you what she loved to eat when she was growing up.
How information is transmitted in the brain
Neurotransmitters or brain chemicals quickly transmit messages – feelings, thoughts, and actions involved in what you think, feel, or do. It is similar to laser-like instant messaging.
To make this work efficiently, your brain needs specific nutrients. For instance, omega-3 fats are essential to help the messages get to the right area of your brain. You could think of this as a mailbox.
Staying hydrated is crucial for your working memory. Drinking at least five to eight glasses of water a day helps keep you hydrated and improves your physical and mental performance.
The brain's enemies
It's important to avoid some common over the counter and prescription medications if possible that decrease brain function, especially memory. Examples are painkillers, sleeping and blood pressure pills, and antihistamines. You may want to talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you are concerned about your memory and medications.
Another enemy is depression. The neurochemical serotonin is necessary for memories to be transmitted in the brain and to avoid depression. Someone who is depressed who has low serotonin levels is more likely to have difficulty with memory. This also applies to some active neurochemicals with anxiety.
The last important enemy the brain has is stress. Remember the last time you felt stress. The main stress hormone (cortisol) shrinks the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is critical to thinking and memory. More than likely with an increase in cortisol, you felt distracted and had difficulty focusing during a stressful time. I can certainly recall times when this has happened to me.
How you can protect your memory
Fortunately, most of the time our body normally makes neurotransmitters in just the right amounts. In addition, there are more things you can do to protect your brain than the things mentioned above.
The following three things are essential to protecting your memory:
- Eat healthy. This also includes making sure you get omega-3 fats and the B vitamins. Vitamin B12 is essential because it protects the nerve cells in your brain. Proteins turn into amino acids that create brain chemicals. These help your memory and ability to focus. Fruits and vegetables ("good carbs") provide antioxidants that protect you from diseases and age-related deterioration in your body.
- Sleep well. When you are sleeping, the brain is busy consolidating memories and other tasks. Generally, it is best to aim for seven or eight hours of sleep a night although some people do fine with six hours. To increase the quality of your sleep, make your bedroom a quiet place that is relaxing. Minimize the light in your room as much as possible for deeper sleep.
- Exercise daily. The most recent research published in the journal Neurology indicates people who exercise six or seven days a week have better brain health. No link was found between brain health and leisure activities like doing crossword puzzles. People who remain physically active are more likely to have good cognitive and memory skills.
Research continues in the area of brain and memory function so we will be even better able to know how to be proactive. Begin today to choose to do more to protect your brain and have fewer "senior moments." You will find that by making a few small changes in your lifestyle, you will be rewarded by maintaining your memory and having a healthy brain.
What do you do to help take care of your memory and your brain?
Until next time,