Sat08302014

Senior Lifestyles

Memory loss: Why it's increasingly common and what to do about it

We’ve all done it. When was the last time you walked into a room and said to yourself, “What did I come in here to do?”

In recent years, a growing number of patients of all ages are coming to see me because of memory loss. They do their usual online research, type in their symptoms and then panic because they think they have early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately, this isn’t usually the case.

What is it about our modern-day lifestyle that leads to deteriorating memory? Following are some common causes of (non-Alzheimer’s) memory loss.

• Stress. Stress hormones like cortisol send blood flow away from a part of the brain called the hippocampus, which creates new memories and controls our sense of direction.

• Lack of sleep. Sleep is becoming a lower priority as bedtimes shift later as a result of our nighttime digital addictions. Sleep allows us to process data from our day and consolidate them into memories and learning experiences. Many people resort to the chronic use of sleep medications, which may also have negative effects on cognitive function and memory.

• Lack of exercise. Exercise is a great brain booster. Increased sitting time is linked to obesity, heart disease and reduced brain function. Studies show that sedentary people have reduced levels of a vital brain chemical called BDNF (brain-derived neurotropic factor) that contributes to memory loss.

• Unhealthy diet. How you eat can impact how clearly you think and recall information. Glucose in particular is the brain’s primary fuel source, so eating foods that cause significant fluctuations in glucose levels will have a negative impact on both mood and memory. Insulin resistance is the underlying cause of diabetes, heart disease and a growing list of chronic health conditions, including memory loss.

• Too much computer time. New studies indicate that a brain that’s overly reliant on technology is at risk for reduced memory and cognitive function. For example, if we have a question or are trying to recall information, we have instant access to it on our phones or computers. In the old days, individuals could actually remember at least a dozen different phone numbers and addresses. Our reliance on high-tech tools may contribute to a weaker brain.

• Too much alcohol and medications. Drinking too much alcohol can impair memory. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs and supplements may also affect your memory, so discuss them with your doctor.

• Other medical conditions. Diabetes, thyroid disorders, depression and a long list of other medical disorders can be connected to memory loss, so be sure to discuss this symptom with your doctor.

Preventive steps

The following steps can protect and improve your memory – while also reducing the risk of chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

• Get more exercise.

• Manage stress through activities such as yoga and meditation.

• Get plenty of sleep.

• Improve your diet with an emphasis on reducing sugars and excess carbohydrates. Eat more vegetables and fruits.

• Start hobbies that stimulate different parts of your brain, such as learning a language or playing an instrument.

• Socialize more face-to-face and not online. Human social stimulation helps enhance brain function.

In today’s world, memory loss is more common, but there are many ways you can fight this trend. For persistent or progressive memory loss, consult your doctor for a thorough evaluation.

Dr. Ronesh Sinha is an internal medicine physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Los Altos Center, where he provides medical consults to high-risk South Asians. He also runs health education and wellness programs for local employers.

The Palo Alto Medical Foundation and column editor Arian Dasmalchi provide this monthly column.

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