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.
With Black Friday upon us, the holiday season is now officially underway. Although the next month or so provides many opportunities to see family and friends, be generous, and spread good cheer, it can also be a difficult time. In a stressed-out heartbeat, the holiday season can morph into the hell-iday season. Deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization can evoke a state of rest and release. Doing them can slow your heartbeat, calm your breathing, lower your blood pressure, and help you chill out. You can’t necessarily eliminate the seasonal stressors. But you can counter them using mini-relaxation exercises, whether you have 10 minutes to spare or just one minute.
Therapy dogs provide comfort and support. They must be social, gentle, and enjoy getting and giving physical affection. My therapy dog, Maps, has those qualities in spades. They also must be well behaved and respond to their handlers, neither of which applied to Map when I got him as a puppy. After many therapy dog classes and a lot of practice, we learned. After two years of training, Map became a certified therapy dog. He shines when he is in his blue training coat visiting a preschool. He loves to see the kids and to work with me. How does Map help kids? His presence somehow lets children open up to learning. He offers kids a way to feel more whole in the face of physical illness or disability. He can also help children heal from emotional pain. Like any great therapist, Map knows how to listen and how to help children help themselves.
A new series of books is bringing readers the kind of inspirational stories that have made Chicken Soup for the Soul books international bestsellers plus with trusted health advice from Harvard Medical School. The combination of stories providing hope, inspiration, and great person-to-person advice plus straight talk and life-changing medical information from Harvard doctors will help readers live healthier, more satisfying lives. Each book focuses on a single topic. The first four will be available beginning May 22, 2012. They are Chicken Soup for the Soul: Boost Your Brain Power! by top neurologist Dr. Marie Pasinski; Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Back Pain! by leading physical medicine expert Dr. Julie Silver; Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Goodbye to Stress! by noted psychologist Dr. Jeff Brown; and Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Hello to a Better Body! by respected internist Dr. Suzanne Koven.
Media reports describing “broken heart syndrome” often lump together two completely different conditions. One is stress cardiomyopathy, sometimes known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy. The other is myocardial infarction, better known as a heart attack. A huge sudden stress—like news that a loved one has died, experiencing an earthquake, or learning that your accountant has stolen all of your retirement savings—unleashes a torrent of stress hormones that can trigger one of those conditions. Stress cardiomyopathy is a weakening of the left ventricle, the heart’s main pumping chamber. Over the course of a week or longer, the left ventricle tends to recover its pumping power. Heart attacks occur when something—usually a blood clot—blocks blood flow to part of the heart muscle.
Thirty-five years ago, Dr. Herbert Benson defined and tested the relaxation response. This simple method for quieting brain activity slows the body’s processes and induces a feeling of well-being. Both have measurably positive effects on disorders caused by stress or made worse by it, including high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, and many digestive disorders. In a recent lecture at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Benson described the technique and talked a crowd through it. Inducing the relaxation response is simple: Sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed. Relax your muscles and silently repeat a word, phrase, sound, or short prayer of your choosing over and over. When stray thoughts interfere (as they will), let them come and go and return to your word, phrase, or sound. Doing this daily can help ease stress.
Many people try to tune out stress. A healthier approach may be to tune in to it. Paying more attention to what is going on around you, not less, is the first step toward cultivating mindfulness, an excellent technique to help you cope with a range of mental and physical problems, including stress. Mindfulness teaches people to be present in each moment. The idea is to focus attention on what is happening now and accepting it without judgment. Mindfulness techniques have been shown to ease stress, prevent major depression from reappearing, alleviate anxiety, and even reduce physical symptoms such as pain or hot flashes.
One of the newest therapists at Harvard Medical School is Cooper, a 4-year-old Shih-Tzu who recently joined the school’s Countway Library as a registered therapy dog. From the confines of his very own office, Cooper is on duty at the Countway to help students, staff, and faculty members who need a little mid-day stress relief. They can spend up to 30 minutes at a time with Cooper by showing their ID at the reference desk. Before becoming a therapy dog, Cooper underwent training with an organization called Caring Canines, where he works when he’s not at Harvard. Studies going back to the early 1980s support the idea that dogs—and other pets—have enormous health benefits for people.
Feeling tired? If so, it’s not surprising. Fatigue is one of the most common problems people report to their doctors. But fatigue is a symptom, not a disease. Different people experience it in different ways. The tiredness you feel at the end of a long day or after a time zone change might feel similar to that resulting from an illness. Fatigue from stress or lack of sleep usually subsides after a good night’s rest, while disease-related lethargy is more persistent and may be debilitating even after restful sleep. Either way, you don’t have to live with it. You can find out what is causing you to feel tired and discover what you can do to renew your energy levels.
Feeling stressed? Call a timeout, counsels “Stress Management,” a new Special Health Report from Harvard Health Publications. One way to stop stress and worry from taking over your days involves setting aside 15 minutes or so to focus on your problems. When the time is up, try to leave your worries aside and focus on something more productive. Writing down your worries and dropping them in a “worry box” can also help, explains Harvard Health editor Annmarie Dadoly.