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."
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 memory loss.
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 lifestyle.
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 brain, humming:
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 while driving.
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 immediately."
Originally published in the November/December 2007 issue of WebMD the Magazine.