By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Q: I just turned 70. I have always had a great memory. But now I occasionally can’t remember names. Is this normal memory loss, or something more serious?
A: For many of us, these types of memory blips become more common as we get older. Our brains are forming fewer connections now, so our memory is not as strong as it used to be. It may take us longer to remember basic information, such as names, dates or where we left our car keys. As we get older, the processing speed of our brain slows down, so we can’t recall information as quickly as we used to.
Memory lapses are unsettling, but they don’t necessarily herald impending dementia. The key is in how often these slips occur. You really need to figure out the pattern. Is it happening several times a week or is it happening once or twice a month? Is it a change compared to five or 10 years ago? Is it getting gradually worse?
Forgetfulness can be a normal part of growing older. Memory lapses can also stem from several other conditions, including lack of sleep, stress, medications, alcohol or depression.
Any of these conditions can be treated. For example, you can adjust your sleep schedule, try deep breathing or other techniques to reduce stress, change the dose or type of medications you take, cut down on your drinking, or get treated for depression.
Don’t be alarmed by everyday forgetfulness. The time to call your doctor is when you have more persistent or worsening memory loss that’s interfering with your daily activities and routine and starting to affect your daily functioning.
There are two things you can start doing right now to preserve mental function as you age: diet and exercise.
There have been a couple of large studies that showed a benefit of the Mediterranean-style diet in slowing or preventing cognitive decline as we age. The Mediterranean diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, fish, and moderate amounts of red wine.
Regular exercise can slow the progression of and may even prevent cognitive decline. Exercise is thought to shield the brain from damage in a number of ways — by improving blood flow, protecting the blood vessels that feed the brain, and reducing stress hormone levels.
(Howard LeWine, M.D. is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)