BY HOLLY ST. LIFER
Cohesive. Last week, while conducting a phone interview I couldn’t remember the word cohesive. It ‘s an adjective I use all the time but at that moment I couldn’t retrieve it, and then several hours later it popped into my head when I no longer needed it. Later that night, it took me a few minutes to remember Gosling’s first name was Ryan.
Experts say that for the large majority of us over 40, these glitches are nothing more than a normal facet of getting older. In fact, 56 percent of almost 20,000 participants in the Nurses’ Health Study between the ages of 70-81 reported a change in their ability to remember things. In particular, 29 percent said they had trouble recalling a short list of items and 25 percent experience difficulty remembering something from one minute to the next.
Still many of a certain age worry: Could it be early-onset Alzheimer’s? The answer is probably not. In fact, early onset of the disease is rare. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, only 5 percent of the four million people who are diagnosed develop it before age 65.
“As we age every part of our body doesn’t work as well from our knees to our minds,” says Michael Shelanski, M.D. and director of Columbia University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “In the memory area of the brain we are constantly making new nerve cells. As we get older, production of these cells decreases and although we don’t know for certain, this might be why our memory’s not as sharp.”
Part of the concern comes from not knowing the difference between the where’d-I-leave-my-glasses? memory loss, and dementia, a more severe cluster of symptoms caused by Alzheimer’s and other progressive diseases such as Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, or alcoholism that affect your ability to function as you once did. “Running into someone and not remembering her name, is the kind of memory loss that’s harmless. I call it benign forgetfulness,” says Dr. Shelanski. “The types of scenarios that would signal the possibility of dementia would be leaving the house and not remembering how to get home, or trouble handling money or paying your bills. These lapses warrant a talk with your doctor.”
Mary Sano, Ph.D., and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City recommends performing a mini self-evaluation by asking yourself two questions: Do you think your memory is worse than others your age? And is it measurably worse than it was last year? “If you answer “yes” to either or both answers, tell your doctor. Then she can evaluate other factors including medical history and may recommend further tests and a neuropsychological evaluation,” says Sano.
Although there’s no cure for dementia, practicing a healthy lifestyle can reduce your odds of developing it. Keeping an ideal body weight is a major deterrent because tipping the scales can lead to diabetes, one of the biggest risk factors. “We’ve known for a long time that there’s a link between diabetes and Alzheimer’s but we’re still investigating what that is,” says Scott Turner, M.D. and director of the Georgetown University Memory Disorders Program in Washington, DC. “It seems to be related more to type 2 diabetes than type 1, and a key feature of type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance.” In a study published in the Archives of Neurology in September, participants with either mild or moderate Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment who received a low dose of insulin scored better on memory tests than those who took a placebo.
What you eat also contributes to how well you think. Studies conducted at Taub Institute for Research of Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain at Columbia University in New York City found favoring a Mediterranean diet may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s. What’s more the findings showed it may help prevent a type of brain damage that can lead to problems with thinking and memory by 36 percent. The Mediterranean diet is comprised of vegetables, legumes and fruits, along with cereals, fish, poultry, wine and lots of olive oil – with scant intake of dairy and meat.
Numerous studies have also found moderate to vigorous exercise improves cognition. And finally intellectual stimulation may help. Researchers at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago tracked 801 older people over a four-year period and noted how often they engaged in information processing activities like reading the newspaper, playing puzzle games and visiting museums. Those that did them most frequently lowered their Alzheimer’s risk by 47 percent.
Although Renee Miller’s mother first showed signs of Alzheimer’s at age 60 and ultimately died of the illness 15 years later, she’s not concerned that her memory isn’t as dependable as it used to be. “I may walk out of my office and as I head down the hall forget what I was about to do, but it’s annoying and nothing more. My life’s not compromised in any way and I know I’m doing everything I can to prevent it,” says the 53 year-old general manager of a communications company. She remembers the early changes in her mother’s personality as she became less invested in her loved ones and, although normally social, withdrew from conversation. “In comparison, my main complaint is pretty minor; now I have to write a lot down instead of retaining everything in my head as I always did. At this point, I know worrying isn’t going to help me,” says Miller. She’s right about that, says Dr. Shelanski. “To worry at her young age of 53 only creates stress and here’s the irony – that can worsen memory.
For additional information:
The report of the State of the Science Conference on Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease and Cognitive Decline: http://consensus.nih.gov/2010/
Med Diet: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.
Info Processing: http://jama.ama-