Keeping Memory Lane Unclogged

Are you starting to notice more of those "senior moments"? A name or fact is on the tip of your tongue, but you can't remember it, and your conversations are increasingly studded with, "You know, what's-his-name?"

Don't panic. You're not losing your mind. Many people experience slight memory problems as they age. But if you've been jogging all these years to keep physically fit, you may wonder if there's a way to keep mentally fit as well. Would nutritional supplements and memory-improvement classes make a difference? Recent research suggests supplements, such as ginkgo biloba, and the right mental exercises could help.

Regardless of age, mnemonic abilities vary from one person to the next. Some people have always been forgetful, others have extraordinary recall well into old age. In general, though, there is "a certain amount of slowing of synaptic neural transmissions with age" that can start as early as your 30s, says Patricia Tun, associate director of the memory and cognition lab at Brandeis University. In other words, it takes longer to retrieve information such as names and dates. Tun's research also shows people grow more distractible with age and find it harder to block out certain background noise.

Why memory slows with age is unknown. "There may be some loss of nerve cells and accumulation of intercellular sludge, and it's thought that the parts are wearing out," says Dr. Barry Gordon, director of the memory clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutes in Baltimore. To understand what could go wrong and what might help, it's useful to review how memory works.

Contrary to popular belief, memory is not located in a distinct part of the brain or stored in brain cells. Rather it is a network of thoughts that's created as chemicals called neurotransmitters--acetylcholine, in particular--and electrical impulses trace pathways through the brain. As we learn new information, the interconnections, or synapses, between brain cells increase, creating a more complex network of associations. Orchestrating this process is the hippocampus, a part of the brain that determines what information goes into long-term memory. Unless new input has special meaning for you or is frequently repeated, you quickly forget it.

CELL SUPPORT. People don't actually lose their memories unless this process is damaged by injury or disease. "Dementia is a pathology that is not part of normal aging," says Andrew Monjan, chief of the neuropsychology of aging at the National Institute on Aging. Some dementia is caused by cardiac conditions such as hypertension, where tiny strokes block blood flow to the brain. More commonly, Alzheimer's is the culprit. It disables brain cells that produce acetylcholine and forms insoluble plaques, especially in the hippocampus. Inflammation and free-radical damage in surrounding tissue may also appear. In the process, "fatty acids in the membranes of brain cells become oxidized, and the membranes stop functioning properly," says Jerry Cott, head of adult psychopharmacology research at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Various drugs and nutritional supplements appear to help Alzheimer's patients. But there is only anecdotal evidence that these substances would make a difference in healthy people. For example, researchers have noticed that arthritis sufferers who take ibuprofen and naproxin to reduce inflammation have a lower incidence of Alzheimer's. "Epidemiological studies suggest that people who take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories [NSAIDs] for two years or more have a 60% reduction in risk for Alzheimer's," says Gary Small, director of the Center on Aging at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Estrogen, too, has been shown to improve reading retention and reduce the risk of Alzheimer's in postmenopausal women. "There's evidence that estrogens are across-the-board boosters of acetylcholine and [can] increase synapses in the hippocampus," says Vassilis Koliatsos, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins.

Should you start taking NSAIDs or estrogen to sharpen your memory or prevent Alzheimer's? Probably not, unless you suffer from arthritis or are a postmenopausal woman with low cancer risk. Ginkgo biloba, meanwhile, may confer some benefit on normal memories and probably won't do any harm, unless you are taking a blood thinner such as aspirin.

Ginkgo, used widely in Europe to treat memory problems, is an herb derived from an ancient species of tree. It contains flavinoids, which help to neutralize free radicals, and ginkgolides, which inhibit blood-clotting and reduce inflammation. The effect, if any, is subtle, and you wouldn't detect it for several months. If you want to try ginkgo, the recommended dose is 60 to 80 milligrams twice a day. Also look on the label for a 26-to-6 or 27-to-7 ratio of flavinoids to ginkgolides.

Vitamin E is well-recognized as an antioxidant and in daily doses of 800 to 2,000 mg can have blood-thinning properties. Two other nutrients that may sharpen the mind are the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and phosphotidyl serine (PS). Brain cells are made largely of fatty acids, and these supplements may keep them supple.

Before you rush to the health-food store, note that you can get a similar benefit by eating lots of fruit, vegetables, and fish. "Fruits and vegetables are found more and more to have important antioxidant effects in the body," says the National Institute of Mental Health's Cott. Salmon, tuna, sardines, and canola and flaxseed oil are all rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

DOWNTIME. Other considerations affect memory as well. Stress and depression often appear to impair memory because they sap mental energy. And many people think they are becoming forgetful when in fact they're too busy to keep track of everything they have to do. "A common misconception is that you're having memory problems when you're not really paying attention," says Tun. "For people in middle age, it can be important to have some downtime to relax."

Memory-enhancement classes are probably not the answer. They are based on techniques for building associations between new information and old. "I warn people they don't need to spend $300 to learn to associate to remember someone's name," says Tun. Sink the money instead into pursuing a new interest, like tap dancing or bridge, that builds creative thought associations and challenges the brain to form meaningful new connections. In animal studies, enriched environments have shown an increase in brain synapses and memory abilities. "Passivity is the worst enemy of good mental function as you get older," says Tun.

Physical exercise is equally important. Brain cells need oxygen and regular blood flow, and aerobic exercise helps prevent cardiac conditions that can lead to dementia. It all boils down to the maxim that what is healthy for the body is healthy for the mind.

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