Of all the health issues that loom large with age, memory loss is among those that provoke the most worry. A big reason is the uncertainty: people often wonder if their occasional memory slips are just a normal part of growing old or a sign of impending Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia. A new study of older adults, published in today’s issue of the journal Neurology, sheds some light—and perhaps offers a bit of reassurance—about the connection between self-reported memory loss and a diagnosis of dementia. Over a 10-year period as 70-somethings turned into 80-somethings, about 1 in 6 developed dementia. About 80% had reported memory changes. But it took about nine years from the first self-report of a memory change to a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, an intermediate stage between normal memory loss and dementia. The transition to dementia usually took about 12 years.
A study published in this month’s Journal of Nutrition suggests that drinking caffeinated beverages, having the occasional alcoholic drink, and eating a healthy diet may help preserve memory and thinking skills long into old age. In particular, foods that are part of the Mediterranean diet—fruits, vegetables, nuts, fish, olive oil, and whole grains—show promise for preserving memory and preventing Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
When it comes to memory, sleep is a Goldilocks issue: both too much and too little aren’t good. Aim for “just right,” says a new report from the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study. Study participants who slept five hours or fewer per night or nine hours or more did worse on tests of memory and thinking skills that those getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night. The researchers estimated that undersleepers and oversleepers were mentally two years older than the women who got seven to eight hours of shut-eye a night. Although this study couldn’t prove that getting too little or too much sleep causes memory and thinking problems, it’s in line with other work showing the potentially harmful effects of poor sleep. Previous research has linked poor sleep with higher risks of heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, and depression.
There are plenty of good reasons to be physically active. Big ones include reducing the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Maybe you want to lose weight, lower your blood pressure, prevent depression, or just look better. Here’s another one, which especially applies to anyone experiencing the brain fog that comes with age: exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills. In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.
For some people, like those with an addiction, any amount of alcohol is too much. For others, drinking alcohol is something of a balancing act — a little may be healthful, while more than a little may be harmful. A new report in the journal Neurology highlights the dual effects of alcohol in men. As part of the Whitehall II study in Britain, researchers assessed the drinking habits of middle-aged men and women three times over a 10-year period. The study participants also took a mental skills test three times over the next 10 years. Compared with men who didn’t drink or who drank moderately, mental decline began to appear one to six years earlier in men who averaged more than 2.5 drinks a day. (There weren’t enough heavy drinkers among women to show any clear differences.) How does a person know if he or she is drinking too much? The CAGE and AUDIT tests can help.
What’s bad for the heart is often bad for the brain. High cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, and unhealthy “hardening” of the arteries increase the risk of mental decline or dementia later in life. A study published online today in Neurology shows that older people with the stiffest arteries are more likely to show the kinds of damage to brain tissue often seen in people with dementia. The study adds support to the “two hit” theory of dementia. It suggests that the accumulation of Alzheimer’s-linked amyloid protein in the brain may not pose problems until damage to small blood vessels that nourish the brain nudges them over into dementia. There may be a silver lining to this line of research: Efforts to improve cardiovascular health can also protect the brain.
Physical and mental activities are both important for protecting your thinking skills and warding off dementia. But does one trump the other? A study published yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine tried to tease out if one was better than the other for brain health. Researchers recruited 126 older adults who felt that their memory or thinking skills had recently gotten worse, and divided them into four groups. All were asked to do an hour of mental activity three times a week and an hour of physical activity three times a week. What differed were the intensities of these activities. After 12 weeks, scores on thinking tests improved across the board. The big surprise was that there weren’t any real differences in improvement between the groups. The researchers concluded that the amount of activity is more important for stimulating the brain than the type of activity, because all of the participants both exercised and engaged in mental activities each week.
Memory slips are aggravating, frustrating, and sometimes worrisome. When they happen more than they should, they can trigger fears of looming dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. But there are many mundane—and treatable—causes of forgetfulness. Here are seven common ones: lack of sleep, some medications, an underactive thyroid, drinking too much alcohol, stress, anxiety, and depression. If memory lapses are bugging you, it’s worth a conversation with your doctor to see if any reversible causes are at the root of the problem. Something like getting more sleep, switching a medication, or a stress reduction program could get your memory back on track.
Loss of hearing represents more than just difficulty hearing sounds. It can lead to social isolation and depression. A new study suggests that hearing loss may also be linked to loss of memory and thinking skills. In a study published online yesterday in JAMA Internal Medicine, Johns Hopkins researchers found that declines in thinking skills happened faster during a six-year period among people with hearing loss than among those without it. Among the nearly 2,000 volunteers, all over age 70, those with hearing loss we also likely to develop “cognitive impairment,” defined as a substantial reduction in the score on a key test called the Modified Mini-Mental State Examination. The researchers estimated that it would take a hearing-impaired older adult just under eight years, on average, to develop cognitive impairment compared with 11 years for those with normal hearing. This new study shows an association. It does not prove that hearing loss causes a decline in thinking skills. The work also raises a huge question: can treating hearing loss prevent or slow an age-related decline in brain function?
When it comes to keeping healthy and fit, living a mentally active life is as important as regular physical exercise. Just as your muscles grow stronger with use, mental exercise keeps your mental skills and memory in tone. Although any brain exercise is better than being a total mental couch potato, some kinds of “brain work” are more effective than others. The activities with the most impact are those that require you to work beyond what is easy and comfortable. Try these four basic brain-health strategies: Be a lifelong learner. Strain your brain with mentally challenging tasks. Get out of your comfort zone from time to time to challenge your mental skills. Be social. And don’t forget your body—physical activity that gets your pulse thumping helps the mind as well as the heart.