We have all found ourselves in moments of memory lapses. But imagine the impact on your life if those moments became more the norm than the exception. Though Alzheimer's is the most recognized memory-robbing disease, the condition can have many causes, and can affect even children.
Many factors can contribute to memory loss:
• Medication: This should always be considered first with any patient complaining of memory loss.
• Alcohol consumption: Alcohol is a direct toxin to the brain, even causing it to shrink with prolonged exposure. Chronic alcohol use can also lead to deficiencies of vitamins such as folate and thiamine, which are responsible for normal brain functioning.
• Minor head trauma: Repetitive injury to the head may lead to memory problems. The trauma does not have to be severe; what may seem like insignificant head bumps, if repetitive, can result in long-term damage.
• Depression and other mental health disorders: Not only can depression itself cause memory problems, but also the medications used to treat it can contribute to cognitive issues.
• Nutritional factors: Vitamins B-12, B-1 (thiamine), folate, magnesium and alpha lipoic acid all contribute to cognitive function. Poor absorption of these nutrients or dietary deficiencies may be to blame for memory loss. Blood tests can easily determine nutritional status.
• Insomnia: Americans of all ages are sleep deprived. Adults need at least 7 hours a night, and children need far more — about 12 hours total for preschoolers, and just an hour or two less for preteens.
• Hormonal problems: Menopause, hypothyroidism and low testosterone in men can lead to significant memory problems.
• Diabetes: Diabetic dementia is a growing problem in the United States. Excessive blood sugar and its implications for the circulatory system have a similarly toxic effect on the brain as they do on the heart, eyes and nerves. As Type 2 diabetes continues to strike ever younger people because of obesity, memory loss will increase as well.
• Aging: Some memory loss is expected as we age, but it should not interfere with daily life.
The "use it or lose it" rule so often cited in regard to our bodies also applies to our brains. Without new mental challenges, we get into a comfort zone and use only a small portion of our brain capacity. Children and young adults spend hours a day on their studies. Working adults similarly face new tasks and challenges. Retirees often need to seek out new mental challenges to keep their brains functioning well.
• Rather than completing one book before turning to another, try keeping three books going at once. Switching between them forces your brain to work at keeping the characters and action in each one straight.
• Pick a new hobby. Learn to play a new instrument. You don't have to master any of them; you just have to work at something that challenges your brain in new ways.
• Make sure that in addition to following a healthful diet that keeps you at a healthy weight, you work out your body, too. Try new routines — perhaps a Zumba class, or a new sport — that make you think as they raise your heart rate.
As we age our brains actually need more attention and stimulation, not less. Work it out as often as possible, and you will reap the rewards of a sharp mind.
Dr. Katarzyna "Kasia'' Ostrzenska is medical director of Bay Medical Center in St. Petersburg and is board certified in internal medicine. She can be reached at baymedical.com or (727) 343-6606, or visit Dr. Kasia on Facebook.