It has been said that we know more about the outer workings of the solar system than we do about the inner workings of our brains. There are many reasons for this, and two of the most important are: for so much of human history, we were so busy using our brains to think about other things that we forgot to think about the thing doing the thinking. Also, our brains are incredibly complex and until recently we didn’t have technology that was robust enough to capture our brains at work.
As researchers continue to develop new and better tests to see how we think when we think, one of the most urgent questions that has come up is the question of memory. Why does memory seem to fade as we get older? Why does a memory-robber like Alzheimer’s affect somewhere around 30 million people worldwide, and why are 95% of those people age 65 or older? Is there a connection to stroke, and if so, can this reveal something about the link between the cardiovascular and nervous systems?
What Is Normal?
It is certainly understandable for folks over 65 to worry about their memory. About 6% of people over 65 will experience some form of Alzheimer’s. But what is the difference between normal memory problems and symptoms of illness?
First, our bodies are pieces of machinery. Age and wear and tear break them down. Those are just the brutal facts, and the brain is no different. Here are a two of the memory tasks that can become harder as we age, but are considered to be normal and not a cause for alarm1:
- Finding the right word and getting it out. If you feel as you get older that it’s taking longer to locate the word you’re searching for and to get it out, this is considered normal. Just as it takes an older car longer to start, it may take longer for an older brain to get the mouth to say “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” and sometimes even, “I’ll have the pasta.”
- Learning and recalling new information. If you find as you age that new information just doesn’t seem to be sticking, this is, again, normal.
There are more tasks that fall into this category of “normal decline,” but the two above can be good litmus tests.
What is Abnormal?
A few symptoms physicians look for when testing for dementia or Alzheimer’s are listed below:
- Everyday functioning. When normal, daily tasks become cognitively very difficult, there may be a problem. For example, forgetting a friend’s phone number is normal, but forgetting where you’ve kept your phone for thirty years is not. Or, forgetting the way to the store you just discovered is normal, but forgetting where your normal grocery store is or not.
- Language problems. While tripping over words is normal, garbling syntax is not. A brain suffering dementia may try to say, “I’ll have the pasta,” but the words may come out in some strange order, like “Pasta the have I’ll,” or the brain won’t be able to even begin the sentence.
At the website of HelpGuide.org, there is a helpful questionnaire that can help you assess whether you or a loved one are suffering from normal memory loss or something more severe.2
What Are the Causes of Severe Memory Loss?
The causes of Alzheimer’s stubbornly resist discovery, but researchers are working very hard on quite a few theories, most involving genetics. But non-Alzheimer’s-related memory loss has to do with an erosion of the hippocampus area of the brain, a loss of hormone and proteins that protect the brain, and, crucially, decreased blood flow to the brain.
The Stroke Connection
The last item—blood flow to the brain—is crucial because it is, to a large extent, behavior-related. Our cardiovascular systems are very influenced by our lifestyles. To put it simply, weight maintenance and proper inclusion of items like vitamins and nutrients keep veins and arteries open and the heart pumping strong. Poor diet and lack of exercise, on the other hand, can lead to narrowed arteries, a weak heart, and a resulting decrease of blood flow into the brain, which can lead to both memory loss and a stroke. Indeed, stroke victims tend to become more vulnerable to memory loss after a stroke. To reiterate, the link seems to be cardiovascular.
The Standing Test
The link to stroke has risen to public attention with the recent publication of a study out of Japan.3 Researchers tried an elegant test: have a large number of people try to balance on one leg for a minute and record the data. The researchers found that the inability to balance on one leg for 20 second seemed to indicate something. It indicated “small bleeds” in the brain. These small bleeds, says the report, are tiny strokes. What’s more: the inability to stand on one leg for an extended period of time was positively correlated with memory loss, which leads further credence to the idea that memory loss is not always an inevitability of aging, but can also be a byproduct of behavioral habits.
How to Help Prevent Memory Loss
Clearly, some age-related memory loss is out of our hands, a product of genetics. But, increasingly, some memory loss is seen to be influenced by diet, nutrition, and exercise. Getting in shape and staying in shape is a very good idea. Research is also finding that, like the muscles of the body, the brain responds positively when it is used purposefully. An active social life helps, as do things like puzzles, word games, and active reading. Activities that do not require participation—like watching TV, for instance—do not seem to help strengthen the memory.
So tonight, instead of watching TV and eating fried foods, why not go for a walk, have something truly nutritious, and play a game or have a conversation with a friend? It might help preserve your memory.
- Cleveland Clinic. When memory is normal and when it is not-so-normal. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/healthy_living/hic_Challenges_and_C...
- HelpGuide.org. Age-related memory loss. http://www.helpguide.org/articles/memory/age-related-memory-loss.htm
- Reinberg, Steven. Can you balance on one leg? You may have lower stroke risk. HealthDay. December 18, 2014.
This article is for general educational purposes only and is not intended to be used as or substituted for medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified health care provider with any questions about your health or a medical condition. Never disregard or delay seeking medical advice because of something you have read on the internet.