Memory problems: remedies and treatments
While forgetfulness isn't necessarily a sign that something's wrong, it can be frustrating. Memory boosters and simple do-it-yourself remedies can help to sharpen your memory now and keep it honed for years to come.
Severe memory loss
It is almost impossible for anyone to determine the seriousness of their memory problems. Make an appointment with your doctor if you feel that your memory has become significantly worse over the last 6 months.
See a doctor as soon as you can if you have trouble remembering how to do things you've done many times before or can't remember how to get to a familiar place. You should also tell your doctor if you have trouble accomplishing activities that involve step-by-step instructions, such as following a recipe.
Lifestyle changes to improve memory loss
Find ways to reduce stress. Tense people have higher levels of stress hormones, which over time can affect the hippocampus, the part of the brain controlling memory. You don't necessarily have to meditate–doing something fun with friends and family can be just as beneficial.
Another way to increase the flow of blood to the brain is to get moving. Any type of regular exercise, but especially aerobic exercise such as walking and cycling, will do. Exercise also helps to prevent illnesses such as diabetes, stroke and high blood pressure, all of which can contribute to memory lapses.
If you drink caffeinated drinks, you'll get a short-term boost in your ability to concentrate. And there may be long-term benefits as well. In one study, researchers found that elderly people who drank 3–4 cups of coffee a day were less likely to experience memory loss than those who drank a cup a day or less.
The brain is 85 per cent water, so if you don't drink at least 8 large glasses a day you could become dehydrated, which leads to fatigue, which in turn leads to memory loss.
Listen to music often, and try various types. Researchers have found that listening to music can improve your ability to concentrate and help you to remember what you've learnt. Some types of music actually cause brain neurons to fire more quickly. The faster the beat, the more the brain responds.
Natural remedies to improve memory
Gotu kola has been used to increase mental acumen for thousands of years. There is some research to support the use of the herb to boost memory. Take 2x 300mg capsules twice a day with food.
Take ginkgo biloba tablets or capsules. The herb appears to improve blood flow to the brain, which helps brain cells get the oxygen they need to perform at their peak. If you're perfectly healthy, you probably won't see any beneficial effect from ginkgo, but if you have diminished blood flow to the brain, it may help. Look for a product containing a standardised extract of ginkgo flavone glycosides and ginkgolides, which are the active ingredients.
Consider taking Siberian ginseng, which helps to protect the body from the effects of stress and is said to heighten mental alertness. Take tablets or capsules according to the manufacturer's instructions, and look for a product standardised to contain 300mg to 1g dried root equivalent, or ask a medical herbalist to make up a liquid extract. Don't use for more than a month at a time: give your body a break for 2 months before restarting.
Buy a small bottle of either rosemary or basil essential oil from a health food shop. Tests of brain waves show that inhaling either of these scents increases the brain's production of beta waves, which indicate heightened awareness. All you need to do is put a trace of the oil on your hair, wrists or clothing–anywhere you can get a whiff. Or put some of the oil in a burner.
Keep forgetting your medication? Try a pill box reminder.
Dietary changes to improve memory loss
Make sure that you get enough of the B vitamins in your diet. These include vitamins B6, B12, niacin and thiamin. These nutrients help to make and repair brain tissue, and some of them help your body to turn food into mental energy. Bananas, chickpeas and turkey are rich in vitamin B6; whole grains and meat are good sources of all the Bs. Nuts and seeds, wheatgerm and fortified breakfast cereals are other good sources.
While you're eating more of the good stuff, cut back on foods high in saturated fat. You probably already know that it clogs the arteries that feed the heart, but high-fat foods also clog arteries that feed the brain, which in turn reduces the brain's supply of oxygen. Just as harmful as saturated fats are the trans fatty acids found in soft margarine and many packaged baked goods, such as biscuits, cakes and other snack foods.
Eat fish 2 or 3 times a week. Oily fish such as salmon, trout, herring and fresh (not tinned) tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids. You may know that these fats are good for your heart because they help to ‘thin’ the blood and prevent clogged arteries; they're good for your brain for the same reasons.
New research has uncovered a link between mild glucose intolerance and age-related memory loss. Food converted by the digestive system to glucose (blood sugar) is the main fuel that powers the organs, including the brain. But many people, especially those past their youth, have poor glucose tolerance, meaning they have trouble processing glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells. Eat regular, good-sized meals, emphasising fibre-rich whole grains and vegetables over ‘white’ carbohydrates such as white pasta, white bread, potatoes and white rice.
Focus on good fats–those found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, avocados and fish. They help to keep your blood sugar levels steady without clogging up your arteries.
Lace up your walking shoes. Regular exercise is another way to prevent blood sugar problems.
Supplements to reduce memory problems
Take a multivitamin every day. Make certain it has 100 per cent of the adult daily requirement for folic acid and B12, as it can be hard to get enough of these vitamins in your diet. Even moderate shortfalls may contribute to mental decline.
Memory problems that occur with ageing may be due to the damaging effects of free radicals. There is some evidence that increasing your intake of anti-oxidant nutrients helps to counter the action of free radicals. In particular, studies show a correlation between high levels of beta carotene and vitamin C in the body with better memory, so boost your intake of citrus and kiwifruit, strawberries and broccoli, and bright orange and dark green leafy vegetables such as kumara and spinach.
Memory tests: Challenge your mind
If you're really keen to sharpen your memory, take up a musical instrument. Whatever the instrument, learning to play will develop your motor skills while it fine tunes your brain's ability to analyse and focus.
Go out of your way to stay mentally active. A study conducted on nuns, found that those with the most education and language abilities were the least likely to develop Alzheimer's. But what really counts is not the amount of book learning you did at school or university, it's how much you actively use your mind. Doing crossword puzzles, learning a second language or playing games can exercise your brain.
If you want to grow some new brain circuitry, use the ‘wrong’ hand to do an everyday task several times a day. For example, if you usually brush your teeth with your right hand, use your left; if you zip up your jeans with your left hand, use your right. The brain ‘knows’ when you're using the wrong hand, because of the sensory and motor information it receives from that hand. It's that confusion that stimulates new brain circuits, as the brain struggles to master a new task. (Do it with simple tasks, not when you're using a power drill.)
If you're trying to remember a fact, think of a mnemonic–a phrase, formula or rhyme that aids recall. Some people remember the names of musical notes by recalling the phrase, ‘Every good boy deserves fruit’. Use the same trick to memorise lists. If you have a shopping list that includes jam, apples, paper towels, eggs, milk and cheese. How about, ‘Jane and Polly eat mouldy cheese’? Or you could just write a list…
Another way to remember which errands you have to run is to make up a short story–the more fantastic, the better–about them. Suppose your list includes bank, library, butcher and a stop at your friend Bob's to return a book he lent you. The story might go like this: Beefy Bob the butcher robbed the bank at gunpoint and then hid in the library.