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Alzheimer’s Is the Least Likely Cause of Forgetfulness

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The memory robbers that often are overlooked

Alzheimer’s disease is such a dreaded diagnosis that you may be filled with panic if you experience occasional memory loss. But these worries may be unnecessary.

As people age, the brain undergoes changes that may lead to some decline in short-term memory. This is normal.

Of course memory loss that truly concerns you is another matter. Ask your primary care physician to refer you to a neurologist or geriatrician for an evaluation if…

You have noticed a significant change in your everyday memory over the past six months.

Friends or family members have expressed concern about your memory.

You have begun forgetting recent conversations.

In the meantime, consider whether your occasional forgetfulness may be due to one of the following causes, all of which can be easily corrected…

NOT ENOUGH SLEEP

Poor sleep is probably the most common cause of occasional memory lapses. The ability to concentrate suffers with insufficient rest. Sleep also appears to be essential for consolidating memory — whatever information you learn during the day, whether it’s the name of a colleague or the street where a new restaurant opened, you need sleep to make it stick in your mind.

Self-defense: If you’re not sleeping seven to eight hours nightly, make it a priority to get more sleep. If you are unable to improve your sleep on your own, talk to your doctor.

WIDELY USED DRUGS

Impaired memory is a potential side effect of many medications. Obvious suspects include prescription sleeping pills… opiate painkillers, such as meperidine (Demerol)… and anti-anxiety drugs, such as diazepam (Valium) and alprazolam (Xanax).

Certain blood pressure–lowering medications, such as beta-blockers, and antidepressants also cause memory problems in some people. Even over-the-counter antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), can have this effect.

If you’re taking multiple medications, more than one may cause impaired memory, making it even more difficult to identify the culprit.

Timing is often a tip-off: When impaired memory is an adverse drug effect, it’s most likely to appear when you start taking a new medication or increase the dose. But not always.

As we grow older, our bodies become less efficient at clearing medications from the body, so the same dose you’ve been taking safely for years may cause problems you never had before.

Self-defense: If you think medication might be affecting your memory, do not stop taking the drug or reduce the dosage on your own. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist for advice.

EMOTIONAL UPSET

When you’re anxious, stressed or depressed, your ability to concentrate suffers. Whatever it is that worries or preoccupies you keeps your mind from focusing on facts, names, faces and places, so they aren’t absorbed into memory.

Self-defense: To keep everyday tensions from undercutting your memory, practice some form of relaxation or stress reduction. Yoga, meditation, deep breathing — or something as simple as allowing yourself a soothing time-out to walk or chat with a friend — can relieve accumulated stress and bolster your recall.

True depression is something else: Even mild-to-moderate depression can sap your energy, take pleasure out of life and affect your memory. If you suspect that you may be depressed, be alert for other symptoms — such as difficulty sleeping, sadness, apathy and a negative outlook — and see your doctor or a mental-health professional.

TOO MUCH ALCOHOL

Moderate red wine consumption has been shown to promote the health of your heart and arteries. Because of this cardiovascular health benefit, red wine also may reduce risk for dementia.

Excessive drinking, on the other hand, is harmful to the brain. Among its devastating toxic effects is a severe and often irreversible form of memory loss called Korsakoff’s syndrome, a condition that occurs in alcoholics.

Alcohol’s effect on memory can be subtle. Some people find that even a glass or two of wine daily is enough to interfere with learning facts and recalling information. Pay attention to how mentally sharp you feel after having a drink. If you think your alcohol intake may be causing forgetfulness, cut back. Remember, tolerance for alcohol generally declines with age, giving the same drink more impact.

Self-defense: There is more scientific evidence supporting red wine’s brain-protective effect than for any other form of alcohol. If you are a man, do not exceed two glasses of red wine daily, and if you are a woman, limit yourself to one glass daily.

ILLNESS

A simple cold or headache is enough to interfere with your concentration and recall.

Illnesses that commonly go undiagnosed also may play a role. For example, when the thyroid gland (which regulates metabolism) is underactive, the mind slows down along with the body. (Other signs of an underactive thyroid include weight gain, constipation, thin or brittle hair and depression.) An overactive thyroid can affect your memory by making you anxious, “wired” and easily distracted.

Memory impairment also may be a symptom of other disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or Lyme disease.

NUTRITIONAL DEFICIENCY

An easily overlooked memory robber is a vitamin B-12 deficiency, often marked by general fatigue and slowed thinking. Older people are especially at risk — as we age, our ability to absorb vitamin B-12 from foods diminishes.

Self-defense: If you have occasional memory lapses, ask your doctor for a blood test to check your vitamin B-12 level.

SAFEGUARDING YOUR MEMORY

Even if you’ve identified a relatively harmless cause for occasional forgetfulness, it’s still wise to take steps to guard against cognitive decline in the future. My advice…

Get enough exercise. Exercise is known to help prevent a wide range of serious health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. The evidence also is strong that exercise protects against dementia — and enhances everyday memory performance by improving overall circulation and lowering risk for disorders that can affect memory, such as high blood pressure and obesity.

Self-defense: A leisurely stroll around the block may be relaxing, but you must get 30 minutes of moderate exertion (such as brisk walking or swimming), three to four days a week, to keep your memory intact.

Stay on top of chronic health problems. Studies have shown repeatedly that people with high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (fatty buildup in the arteries), obesity and/or diabetes are at dramatically increased risk of developing dementia in their later years.

The effect of these chronic medical conditions on day-to-day memory is less clear. Research shows that memory declines when blood sugar rises in people with diabetes and improves when they take dietary steps to stabilize it.

Self-defense: If you have a chronic health problem, work with your doctor to keep your symptoms under control.

Give your brain a timed workout. A growing body of research shows that mental exercise helps fend off everyday age-related cognitive changes that contribute to occasional forgetfulness.

Self-defense: Crossword puzzles and the number game Sudoku have gotten a lot of attention as “brain” workouts, but I prefer timed games, such as the word game Boggle or the card game Set (both available online or at discount stores). Racing against the clock gives your mental muscles a real workout by challenging such intellectual skills as attention, speed and multitasking.

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Source: Cynthia R. Green, PhD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and president of Memory Arts, LLC, a provider of memory and brain-health training and consultation services in Montclair, New Jersey. She is the author of Total Memory Workout (Bantam). Date: January 1, 2009 Publication: Bottom Line Health
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