She could deal with constantly forgetting her shopping list, and she'd made
a habit of writing down where she'd parked her car, each and every time. But in
her mid-50s, Janis Mara's memory problems started costing her money. Late fees
began piling up because she forgot to pay her bills.
"Over time, it really intensified," she says. "I wanted to think
I was just getting older, but my fear was that it was Alzheimer's."
When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
After bugging her HMO for an MRI, Mara discovered that her lapses weren't
anything to worry about. She was simply going through a bit of age-related
These annoying senior moments are the result of a decline in brain activity
that shows up in your 50s and affects most people older than age 65, according
to Kirk Erickson, a psychology postdoctoral research associate at the
University of Illinois who studies the relationship between memory and
Scientists don't know whether age-related memory loss is caused by decreased
blood flow to the brain or loss of brain cells; many different brain areas can
Forgetting people's names, where you left your keys, or what you were doing
a moment ago are normal. But forgetting the name of a family member or what
those keys are used for is a sign of more serious problems.
You may feel that your brain is turning to goo, but age-related memory loss
doesn't keep getting worse. In fact, older folks are actually better than their
younger peers at some memory-related tasks, such as crossword puzzles, Erickson
says. Plus, you can stop the decline and even reverse some loss.
How? By making positive lifestyle changes -- the same habits that protect
your heart, bones, and lungs, Erickson says. And it's never too late. "The
brain is relatively malleable," Erickson says, "even into old age."
Erickson recommends these tactics to help keep neurons, nerve cells in the
Exercise: Aerobic training increases the supply of blood to the
brain, spurs the development of new neurons, and forges more connections
between them. All it takes to benefit is 45 minutes of moderate aerobic
exercise, such as walking, three times a week.
A balanced diet: Lab animals on nutrition-rich diets are smarter than
those fed poorly. That may hold true for people, too, says Erickson.
Vitamins: In Erickson's studies, people who used vitamin supplements
tended to have less brain shrinkage than those who didn't. While it's possible
that people who take vitamins tend to make other healthy choices that protect
their brain, getting your minimum daily requirement of vitamins C, E, B6, B12,
and folate is good insurance.
Lifelong learning: Acquiring a new skill, whether it's dancing or
sudoku, helps sharpen your ability to pay attention. The effects extend beyond
the task at hand: Solving a puzzle can improve your ability to concentrate
Mara, who already was an exercise fanatic, finds that pushing through her
initial frustration with processing new information has made her sharper.
"My experience is that learning something new helps almost
Originally published in the November/December 2007 issue of WebMD the
SOURCES: Janis Mara, Richmond, Calif. Kirk Erickson, PhD,
psychology postdoctoral research associate, Beckman Institute for Advanced
Science & Technology, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Erickson, K.
Neurobiology of Aging, August 2005: vol 26: pp 1205-1213. Raz, N.
Neuroreport, Nov. 15, 2004; vol 15: pp 2531-2534. Zandi, P. Archives
of Neurology, January 2004; vol 61; pp 82-88.