Ever lose your car in a parking garage? Forget the name of your best friend's husband? Walk into a room and forget why you're there? Relax. It's probably not Alzheimer's. These annoying little lapses, what many of us refer to as "senior moments," are a normal part of aging. They may start in your 30s or 40s and become problematic or worrisome in your 50s and 60s.
The good news is there are many things you can do to improve brain power, but it does require effort and discipline.
Downhill from our 20s
The decline in memory actually begins in our 20s. That's when the growth of new brain cells starts slowing down, says Dr. Diana Pollock, medical director of the Morton Plant Mease Madonna Ptak Center for Alzheimer's and Memory Loss in Clearwater.
Then there are the other brain-robbing consequences of aging, such as added stress, weight gain, less physical activity, sleep apnea, the natural drop in hormones like estrogen, testosterone and melatonin, and fewer intellectual and social interactions often seen in retirement. It can all add up to memory mishaps.
It's natural to be concerned. A skill you've taken for granted has started to slip. Whether you can't recall a short grocery list or you're taking longer than others to learn a new computer program at work, it's scary.
Given all the possible contributing factors, the first step is to see your doctor to rule out medical causes such as vitamin B-12 deficiency, thyroid problems, sleep apnea, depression and vascular dementia.
TV is bad for the brain
If you get a clean bill of health but are still worried about your memory, what can you do?
"People hate hearing this, but exercise, maintain an ideal body weight and turn off the TV," Pollock says.
Chief on her list, she says, is turning off the TV. Never watch more than two hours a day, Pollock says. "It makes your brain stupid, because you're not using your brain."
Pollock also says your brain can benefit from omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. But make sure you're getting fish oil, not flaxseed. She says that's a widespread misconception, "Flaxseed is useless (as an omega-3 source). Your body can only convert about 10 percent at age 20, even less as you age. Eat fish instead."
And, just as you exercise for physical fitness, experts say it's also important to give your brain a workout. Computer games, crosswords, math puzzles, learning a foreign language or a new musical instrument are all good, as long as you choose something that you're not already pretty good at. The idea is to challenge yourself, to learn something new. Even if you don't succeed, it's the mind-stretch that counts.
Classes help boost memory
To sharpen specific memory skills you may want to consider taking a class. Morton Plant Mease offers a five-week memory training course created by the UCLA Center on Aging.
Speech language pathologist Diana Goodwin teaches the class, which has been popular among seniors, but it is open to younger working people and classes will be added at more convenient times for them. She says the top problem people want help with is remembering names, so she teaches them techniques and strategies to remember names, numbers, lists and words.
Bernadette Homan, 42, says the class not only works, it was fun. "This class taught me to use my brain a little more," says the Tierra Verde woman, "and not to rely on my cell phone or computer all the time." She's younger than most who take the class, but since she works at an assisted living facility, she thought it would be a good experience.
A more intensive program is offered at Brain Fitness Centers in Clearwater, where seniors, cancer patients with "chemo brain," stroke and brain trauma patients are turning for help. Classes are computer-based, tailored to each patient, and meet for an hour, three times a week, for seven weeks. A staff member works one-on-one with each patient. Anyone who feels their memory is slipping can apply to the program but it won't help people with Alzheimer's. Center officials wouldn't say what their full program costs, but did say that it's often covered by insurance and Medicare. Check with your provider.
After an initial workup, a home-based version of the center's program can be purchased for $375, which is all some people may need, said medical director Dr. Stephen Scranton.
Irene Maher can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3416.