Protect your memory

head_outline_puzzle_1600_wht_10307Apparently we are experiencing an epidemic of premature memory loss. Scientists are now saying our memory begins to fade at 45 years of age rather than at 60 as was previously believed.

Unfortunately failing mid-life memory – the occasional slips which are referred to as Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) – could also be an early symptom of senile dementia. This brain disease is now striking people 10 years earlier than it did 20 years ago and is regularly being diagnosed in people in their 40s.

Half of those diagnosed with MCI go on to develop senile dementia. But half don’t so what makes the difference?

There seems to be no simple explanations. Some experts have blamed environmental pollution including exhaust fumes and pesticides. Others have blamed an over-reliance on technology, junk food and our lifestyles generally.

More people are referring themselves to doctors about memory problems. The vast majority suffer from what psychologists have called “security protection overload”. They feel overwhelmed by the numbers, codes and operating systems they need to know to function in a hi-tech environment.

Who hasn’t experienced ‘PIN amnesia’? It happened to me today as I used a credit card I don’t use very often. All my cards have different PINs which I remember pretty much all the time. The stress of getting it wrong and worrying about three strikes and out is enough to interfere with memory recall anyway.

People are using their memory less as they store information on their smartphones. And we’ve seen what happens when people over-rely on sat-navs and end up in a river. The brain is like  a muscle. Use it or lose it!

We have to keep active and our brains active by doing new and different things. Keeping the blood flowing to our brains and making new connections through imagination and planning.

For those of us with middle-aged brains the upside is that we are generally calmer, less neurotic, better in social situations, wiser, and more contented. The Seattle Longitudinal Study, which has tracked the mental abilities of thousands of adults over the past 50 years, has found that middle-aged adults perform better on 4 out of 6 cognitive tests than they did as young adults.

And while middle-aged people can perform tests as well as young people in conditions of silence they are more distracted than them in noisy environments. This might also explain the “doorway amnesia” where we move from one room to another and forget why we are there. The movement breaks our concentration as we are distracted by new stimuli in the new room.

Forgetting is a healthy brain function. You don’t want your brain cluttered up by irrelevant information about previous events when you need to remember something today. People who can’t forget – it’s called hypermythesia – get confused.

Healthy brains allow us to recall information when we need it. The problem is that we don’t always retrieve it efficiently. Our library of information becomes less efficiently managed as we get older.

This post is based on an article in the Times Body and Soul segment which also suggests the following ways to protect your memory.

Walk for 30 minutes a day, three times a week. Regular exercise provides the brain with oxygen and nutrients.

Eat vegetables and nuts. We know mediterranean diets are good for us . Now nutritionists at Rush University Chicago have developed the MIND diet, a specially formulated brain-protecting diet.

Give up transfats. Found in burgers, biscuits and cakes. Designed to increase the shelf-life of food but not people.

Eat less sugar. Studies have shown that high blood glucose can damage brain function. Not to mention sugar ruins your teeth and makes you fat!

Lose weight. It’s not PC to use the F word but obesity is a killer and costs the country a fortune. Overweight people’s memory declines over 20% faster than people of normal weight.

Avoid cigarettes and beer. Middle-aged men drinking two-and-a-half pints of beer a day speed up their memory loss by 6 years. Smoking has also been linked to a faster decline in memory.

Drink strong coffee. Twice a day. It helps middle-aged people do short-term memory tests but appears to have no effect on young people. Caffeine also strengthens brain connections. So there you skinny decaff latte drinkers. Not good for you!

PS Brain training games don’t help. You might get better at the games but that’s all according the the Alzheimer’s society. Same goes for crosswords and Sudoku.

Old doesn’t mean stupid

It’s official. Twenty somethings aren’t at their peak mentally and the human brain can improve with advancing years.

The idea that it’s all down-hill from your mid-twenties is being re-appraised.

Short-term memory and reasoning may decline with old age but long-term memory, vocabulary, emotional intelligence and social skills, can all get better according to researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and reported in The Sunday Times; “Silver set rides wave of greater brain power” (27/6/2010).

Older people are more efficient at problem-solving than the young as they can draw on previous experience and older people also make more rational decisions. Researchers at the University of California studied people aged between 60 and 100  and found that they were less dependent on dopamine, the feel-good hormone sometimes associated with addictive behaviour, and therefore were less influenced by emotions or impulsivity.

This may explain why leaders and senior people in many professions and organisations are in their 50s and 60s. Two-thirds of FTSE 100 CEOs are aged over 50 and judges want to be able to work until they are 70.

Last August the Ministry of Justice proposed that people over the age of 70 should be allowed to sit on juries, although perhaps with an opt-out clause for those who didn’t feel up to it. Judges, who like magistrates and tribunal members have to retire at 70, have strongly opposed the idea.

Although it might save money, as most elderly jurors won’t need compensation for lost earnings, judges say older jurors could be more susceptible to illness and disability which could disrupt proceedings (sounds a bit like sour grapes to me).

A report from the Department of Work & Pensions: “Attitudes to Age in Britain 2004-2008” found that 48% of people found age discrimination a serious issue and more common, with 1 in 4 experiencing it, than any other form of discrimination. Stereotypically older people are seen as warmer and more moral but less competent whereas younger people are seen as exactly the opposite. The survey also showed that older people welcome flexibility and are keen to learn as well as to contribute their skills and experience. However they are less optimistic than younger people and more realistic.

The physical demands on older workers need to be considered as well as health issues like impaired vision, muscle strength, balance  and flexibility, Research from America, where 25% of 65-74 year olds are still working, shows that employers want the brainpower, experience and knowledge of older workers but not the risk of injuries or sickness absence.

Workers need to exercise their mental and physical faculties to keep healthy and motivated. There is growing evidence that mental and physical exercise can boost brain power. Three 40 minute walks a week can improve memory and reasoning while mental stimulation can improve problem-solving and reaction times.

In Finland the Helsinki Times recently reported on a story in the Finnish financial newspaper Talous Sanomat which cast doubts on whether increased life expectancy automatically meant that people should work longer.

This debate has the Confederation of Finnish Industries arguing for a retirement age of 70 because of increasing life expectancy and the belief that people should work to that age. On the other hand the National Institute for Health and Welfare is urging caution because of the variations in health and the ability to work amongst older people.

Experts say only a small percentage of 70-year olds would be in good enough shape for paid employment as many 70-year olds suffer from memory lapses, muscle weakness, heart problems, and diabetes.

See also “Practice makes perfect, probably