The brain manages memory in a manner similar to a computer. There is an area of the brain that handles short-term memory much like a computer’s RAM, and an area that stores remote or long-term memory like the hard drive. A number of conditions may affect the way the brain stores information, causing problems with short-term or long-term memory. These include certain illnesses, ageing, medication side effects, and poor lifestyle choices. Today’s Health Tip addresses medical and lifestyle issues that can affect memory. Next week we’ll look at some of the “tricks” available to help improve memory.
Address medical issues responsible for memory loss – Medical conditions, including high blood pressure, thyroid disease, depression, and alcoholism can cause memory problems. Often, the memory deficit can be reversed by treating the underlying problem. For example, if insufficient production of thyroid hormone (hypothyroidism) is responsible for the memory deficits, taking thyroid replacement usually helps.
Memory deficits related to hypertension usually develop gradually, and may or may not be reversible. High blood pressure often affects memory through damage to the brain’s white matter, the nerves that are covered with a substance called “myelin”. Damage to these nerves, called “demyelination”, affects the way that they conduct messages, including those involved in memory. Hypertension can also affect memory following a series of small strokes from untreated or inadequately treated high blood pressure. This is known as “vascular dementia”. The risk of either of these causes for memory loss can be reduced by lowering high blood pressure, stopping smoking, treating high cholesterol, and controlling diabetes.
Medication side effects is one of the most common cause for memory problems. The list of medications that have been reported to do this is long and includes anti-anxiety medications (Ativan, Valium, Xanax), pain medications (Codeine, hydrocodone, others), sleep aids (Ambien), seizure medications (Neurontin, Tegretol), and corticosteroids (Prednisone).
Improve lifestyle to maintain memory – A strong memory depends on the health of your brain. Controlling stress, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, eating a good diet, and cutting down on alcohol are some of the important lifestyle adjustments you can make to help promote brain vitality and protect your memory.
- Exercise – Research has found that aerobic exercise helps to maintain short-term memory. This is the type used extensively in recalling names, directions, and telephone numbers. It appears to do this by building new cells in an area of the brain that is associated with age-related decline in memory. In addition, people who exercise regularly are much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s dementia.
- Get plenty of sleep – Getting a good night’s sleep can improve memory. This is the time that the brain “files away” newly acquired information for later retrieval. In addition to affecting memory, sleep deprivation compromises your problem solving ability, creativity, and critical thinking.
- Eat “memory foods” – Evidence is accumulating regarding the benefits on brain health of eating foods containing omega-3 fatty acids. Examples of foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids include cold water fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, and herring), walnuts, flaxseed oil, and soybeans. Foods high in antioxidants may also help maintain memory. Colorful fruits and dark leafy vegetables are particularly good sources. Foods that contain high amounts of saturated fats can cause blockages in arteries and adversely affect memory. The primary sources of saturated fat in the American diet include red meat, whole milk, butter, cheese, and ice cream.
- Manage stress – Chronic stress can affect an area of the brain called the hippocampus, where memories are stored. There is some evidence to support the role of meditation in helping to reduce stress and improve memory. Yoga, exercise, massage, prayer, deep breathing, visualization exercises, and listening to soothing music are other healthy ways of managing stress.
- Avoid excessive alcohol consumption – Alcohol can produce detectable impairments in memory after only a few drinks. These impairments are usually reversible in the occasional drinker. In alcoholics, on the other hand, memory problems can become persistent, due to permanent damage to the brain.