Worried about your memory? You’re not alone, and here’s what you can do.
“Doctor Tello, I’ve been forgetting things… I’m worried about my memory.”
This is one of the most common patient concerns I encounter, and with good reason. 50 million people worldwide have dementia, an astronomical number that is projected to triple by 2050. For people who have witnessed the devastation of dementia and may be at genetic risk, any memory lapse can trigger outright panic.
But it’s common to have the occasional memory fart, and misplacing your glasses, putting the milk in the pantry, or forgetting why you went upstairs do not automatically mean you’re losing it.
So how do you know when to worry, and what can you do about it?
There are several ways to test memory, from brief screenings that we can do right in the office, to formal neuropsychiatric testing. I’ll tell you that in the majority of cases I’ve seen, these end up NOT showing dementia.
So what can impact memory? There are many potential contributors, including issues with sleep and stress, psychological issues such as depression, or medical issues such a thyroid issue or vitamin deficiency. It’s totally fine to get checked out.
When my patients come to me with memory concerns, I definitely ask them about sleep, and stress. Inadequate sleep hampers cognitive function. Studies show that sleep-deprived people perform as badly as drunk people on simulated driving tests! Sleep problems can range from simply not getting enough sleep to medical issues like insomnia and Obstructive Sleep Apnea. Thankfully, these can be addressed.
Stress is also well-known to negatively impact the brain, including impaired cognitive functioning and memory. Here’s what’s important to understand: While we can’t control the stressful events in our lives, but we can control how we react to them.
Here’s where meditation comes in. Meditation is a mind technique that promotes relaxation and resilience. There are different ways to meditate. One of the most studied and scientifically validated is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, which uses a combination of mindful presence and focused breathing. Multiple studies have shown that people who participate in MBSR programs have significant improvements in perceived stress and anxiety.
But wait, there’s more. Studies of various meditation techniques have shown improvements in brain function, including attention, memory, executive function, processing speed, and general cognition.
And more: Studies using anatomical MRI show that just 8 weeks of MBSR increases the density of the brain areas involved in learning and memory processes, and emotion regulation. AND another study showed that these same participants also had significant improvements in several tests of psychological well-being, such as self-acceptance, purpose in life, and personal growth. After only eight weeks!
There are several take-aways here:
One, if you’re worried about your memory, talk to your doctor. Your memory may not be as bad as you think it is, and even if it is, there are many possible reasons for what you’re experiencing. So get checked out.
Two, think about how you’re sleeping, and how you respond to stressful experiences. If poor sleep and chronic stress are impacting your memory and thinking, there may be things you can do to help yourself. These may be things like allowing more time for sleep, or taking up a meditation practice, but you may want to discuss with your doctor first.
Three, If dementia is a concern or even a diagnosis, understand that there are things you can do to prevent it or delay the progression. Yes, genetics plays a role, but the importance of a healthy diet and lifestyle factors cannot be understated. My June Harvard Health Blog post Brain Health Rests on Heart Health summarizes the World Health Organization Dementia Prevention Guidelines, featuring solidly scientific recommendations for regular physical activity and a plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet. The bonus is that these basic health habits are not only great for your brain, but can also help prevent heart disease and strokes.