Someone said memory is the second thing to go. I forget what the first thing is.
It’s an old joke but those of us over forty know what it feels like to have those, ‘I know that, just give me a second to remember it’ moments that seem occur more and more frequently. Dubbed ‘brain drain’, ‘foggy thinking’ or less appealingly, ‘senior moments’, these lapses in memory range from slightly frustrating to downright frightening.
Experts tell us that memory loss and brain aging are a normal part of getting older. For mid-life women, hormonal fluctuations and decline in estrogen levels during perimenopause and menopause are often to to blame. However, the most common cause of memory loss is stress and anxiety. The second most common cause is depression.
While memory loss may be normal, our generation of boomers has collectively refused to simply accept aging as natural and seem to have waged full out war on the aging process.
We train our bodies in the gym with the vigor and intensity of twenty-year olds. We educate ourselves about diets and supplements and we eat clean and healthy. We pursue our passions with single-minded fury and we let no one stand in our way.
But can we wage that same war on memory loss and train our brains to remember the way we train our bodies? Yes, we can.
According to Gary Small, MD, Director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at the UCLA Psychiatric Institute we can slow brain aging in four ways: activity, physical fitness, stress reduction, and healthy diet.
Since stress and higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, top the list of causes of memory loss, finding ways to relax and manage stress are key. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 60% of seniors do not exercise. So, while some of us are sweating it out, far too many of us are sitting it out.
Exercise, especially aerobic exercise like running, walking, bicycling and swimming, not only reduces stress but promotes new neurons in the brain and the connections between them, according to neuroscientists at the University of Illinois. Researchers found that people over 60 who exercised three times a week for an hour had brain volumes of people three years younger in only six months. So, lace on those running shoes and get going!
Other experts maintain that staying intellectually and socially engaged are key to maintaining cognitive abilities for a longer period of time in life. Think new—challenges, hobbies, games and places—for keeping the brain buzzing and strong for the long haul.
Several studies in the past few years have confirmed that activities such as playing chess or Soduku, reading, volunteering and doing puzzles help prevent memory loss and make one less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Software programs, such as SharpBrains.com, fitbrains.com, and luminosity.com are a fun way to train the brain and track performance.
In terms of diet, some experts recommend increasing foods with Omega-3 fatty acids such as walnuts, wild salmon, halibut, and flaxseeds boosts memory. Other research suggests that taking 800 mg of folic acid a day improves cognitive function. Interestingly, the CDC reports that one alcoholic drink a day, typically wine, slowed dementia over a three-year period.
Yes, we can approach training our brains in the same devoted way as we approach training our bodies. With some work, we might even remember where we parked the car or left our keys.
Carla Katz is a devoted runner and weightlifter, a labor attorney, and a Professor at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations. Carla writes and lectures on politics, power, health and safety and on a broad spectrum of issues affecting working women and men.