Memory - Use it Or Lose It

Last Editorial Review: 8/2/2002

At age 40, your car keys may disappear and your checkbook may occasionally wander off. You may search the parking lot arguing loudly that a thief has made off with your car rather than admit you can't remember where you parked.

Although there's much scientists don't know about memory, it is known that many people experience some short-term memory loss as they age. It's suspected that the hippocampus in the brain governs the network of memories that function like a network of phone lines. By midlife, you may occasionally have trouble accessing a memory because you have accumulated a lot of them. It's as if you can't get "through" because your "party line" is busy.

A number of your nerve cells (neurons) die as you age. In order to keep your memory sharp, it has been thought that you have to grow new dendrites. These are the connections between your neurons and the more you have, the better your memory will be. (You may also, it now appears, be able to grow new nerve cells.)

Keeping Your Memory "Fit"

You can do a number of things to keep your memory "fit." Increasing blood flow to the brain will help keep your neuronal networks healthy. In addition to physical exercise, you can try brain exercises like adding verbs to nouns or serial subtracting without pen or paper. Doing crossword puzzles, computer games or reading and discussing the information with people will improve your ability to retrieve and remember information.

Eating a low fat diet won't just benefit your heart. Atherosclerosis, commonly called hardening of the arteries, can affect the flow of blood to your brain, so eating a low fat diet combined with exercise can have a positive effect on your memory.

Surprisingly, stress releases a hormone called cortisol that is deadly to brain cells. Handling stress through exercise, meditation, or yoga can help your memory.

It's important to know that many factors can affect memory other than aging. Examples include depression, small strokes, toxic chemicals or too much thyroid. Medication can also affect memory. Some drugs associated with memory problems are Tagamet, Zantac, Valium, Pepcid, Inderal, Xanax and Elavil.

If you think your memory problems are more serious than the forgetfulness that sometimes accompanies aging, you should see your doctor for a complete medical workup. There are many treatable causes of memory loss.

Finally, stay active and involved in life to keep your brain in peak form. And don't forget to remember where you parked the car next time!

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