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Preserving Your Memory as You Age

Updated on April 2, 2015
A diagram of the human brain with the frontal lobe colored in pink.
A diagram of the human brain with the frontal lobe colored in pink. | Source

The Value of Memory

Did I shut off the stove before I left the house? I just had my keys five minutes ago, now where did I put them? What did I come in here for again? It seems as though as we get older, we find ourselves asking these questions, and questions like these, more often.

It has been found that starting in your forties, the brain can shrink by as much as 5% per decade (Göteborg University, Sweden, 1997). And the shrinking is uneven, with the frontal lobe hit disproportionately hard. This is the part of the brain that contains the majority of dopamine sensitive neurons. The dopamine system is largely responsible for short term memory. If you notice, all of the example questions listed in the previous paragraph are short term memory related. Dementia patients often preserve their long term memory much longer than their short term memory.

A reduced capacity for memory can obviously make your life more difficult. It can interrupt the progress of your work, of your home tasks, or even cause you to forget to do one of them. So, how do you halt this progression of memory loss, or at the very least, minimize it?

Eat Enough Fat

For a long time, fat has gotten an undeserved negative reputation. Besides maintaining your brain and memory, there are plenty of other health reasons you should be eating enough fat.

Your muscles are made of protein and water. It is obvious to anyone what would happen to your muscles if you ceased to eat protein. But, do you know what your brain is made of? It is made of 60-65% fat! The rest is water and amino acids. So, what do you think happens to your brain if you don't eat enough fat? The lowfat, high carbohydrate diet push starting in the 1970s that has permeated the science of nutrition has yielded disastrous results, with increased diabetes, obesity, cancer, and dementia.

One of the most prominent fatty acids that make up the brain is DHA, or Docosahexaenoic acid. That is important not just for the makeup of the brain, but also for the eye, testicles, and skin. It consists of a good portion of the cerebral cortex. It is an Omega-3 fatty acid, which our body cannot synthesize by itself, so it is essential to eat enough in our diet.

The Standard American Diet usually yields more than enough Omega-6 acids, which we also cannot synthesize. Most people consume too much of these particular fatty acids, and do not have an ideal ratio of Omega 3/Omega 6 in the body. The ideal ratio should be 1:1. In most Western diets, it is around 15:1 Omega 6 to Omega 3.

The saturated fats are a group that have been particularly targeted in the campaign against fat. In a trial done by the Mayo Clinic, people who consumed the most saturated fat had a 36% reduced risk of developing all types of dementia. Increasingly, doctors and nutritionists are tying Alzheimer's to a high carbohydrate diet, referring to it as "Type 3 diabetes".

Essential to health, good sources of fat include salmon, sardines, eggs, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil, pork, including minimally processed, quality sourced bacon, and grass fed beef. In reference to eggs, remember, it is necessary to eat the yolk, not just the white. The white contains the protein - the fat is located in the yolk, along with many other essential nutrients.

Salmon slices in a salad.  Salmon is one of the leading sources of quality fat needed for proper brain function.
Salmon slices in a salad. Salmon is one of the leading sources of quality fat needed for proper brain function. | Source

Physical Exercise

There is, indeed, a mind-body symbiosis. The body is controlled by the brain, and in turn, improving the shape of your body helps to strengthen the brain. Many experimental studies such as this one at the University of Illinois have found that people who engage in regular moderate exercise have more white matter in their brain than their chronically sedentary counterparts. The white matter acts as a connector and coordinator to the different areas of the grey matter contained in the cerebrum.

Ideally, you should get, at the minimum, regular moderate physical exercise. Moderate is classified as exercise that is not vigorous enough to fatigue you after a short period of time, but enough to significantly raise your heart rate. Even a brisk walk for a half hour three or four times a week will make a noticeable improvement. Though, ideally, exercise should be done daily. This routine should be combined with vigorous exercise at least a couple times per week.


Get the Right Amount of Sleep

Sleep is not just for the body; it is also, and perhaps even more so for the brain. Memory is addressed during the deepest part of sleep, the REM phase. This is where the brain configures its exposures through the day and cements them into our memory. It also strengthens the nerve connections that enable memory. Chronic lack of sufficient sleep takes a cumulative toll on the repairs your brain does on itself.

While the most common sleep problem concerns not getting enough, there is also such a thing as sleeping too much. This is true especially for senior citizens. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine has done research suggesting that sleeping more than 9 hours results in cognitive decline. Most adults need between 6-8 hours of sleep per day. To best determine what your optimal sleep time is, try to sleep on non-work days with no alarm clock, and allow yourself to wake up naturally. Do this when you are healthy, as a sickness may require you to sleep longer.

Socialize

Humans, by nature, are social animals. Loneliness can contribute to both elevated stress and depression. These can contribute to memory loss, known as pseudodementia, where your brain does not endure the same physical changes of dementia, such as plaques or atrophy, but will exhibit the same type of memory loss that tends to be the first symptom of dementia patients. Build a social network, volunteer, maintain your friendships and family connections.

Exercise Your Mind

In the section about diet, the analog of eating protein to maintain muscle and fat to maintain the brain was referenced. This intones a similar axiom. Physical exercise strengthens the mind; mental exercises, conversely, strengthen the brain.

The simple task of reading, either fiction or non-fiction, serves to stimulate the brain. Doing brain teasers, crossword puzzles, or puzzles such as the Rubik's Cube are fun "weightlifting" for the brain. The memorization of algorithms for solving the cube will become easier each time you scramble and solve the puzzle.

While some still tend to give them a bad rap, do not overlook video games as a good way to stimulate the mind. Some research has shown that gamers have higher IQ's than non-gamers. They not only strengthen your memory, but in many cases, also increase the speed in which you can remember things.

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