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Middle Age Memory Loss: Or Where the Hell Are My Keys?
by Marjorie Dorfman

If you find yourself dialing a number and then forgetting who you have called or going up the stairs or down for something that has suddenly escaped your memory, you are in the right place. Why is this phenomenon so closely associated with growing older? Read on, lest you dare to forget.

Back in the sixties and seventies, tripping and dropping out were common phrases that were usually connected with psychedelic drugs and a special kind of memory corruption, namely blackouts. But despite the misanthropic, shameful ghost of Timothy Leary, today we are talking about something else. Middle-age memory loss is a common thing. It does not mark the onset of serious disease, like Alzheimer’s, which is always the fear that lurks in back of the brains of those of us who can remember. The difference can be stated thus: It’s one thing to forget where you put your glasses, and it’s quite another to forget that you wear glasses in the first place.

Most experts agree that some degree of memory loss is a natural part of the aging process. Half to two-thirds of people fifty and older notice this change. If you are among them (as am I, sad to tell), you may be reassured to know that small memory lapses are usually the result of normal, age-related changes in the brain. Although the degree of memory loss varies from person to person, it is, for the most part, minor. Researchers from the MacArthur Foundation Study on Successful Aging in a recent study concluded, "the view that old age is inevitably accompanied by substantial reductions in mental function is clearly wrong."

Modern research has also revealed that former beliefs about brain cells, or neurons from older brains not regenerating, were incorrect. Experts once thought that the neurons in the brain were fixed for life and that when they died, they would not be replaced by newer ones. But recent research has demonstrated that people can grow new neurons and make new connections between neurons well into old age. (Maybe not so good for elephants and those among us who claim Mediterranean ancestry).

New evidence suggests that the brain functions somewhat like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets (or use it or lose it, or something like that). Reading, learning and thought-provoking activities (other than terrorist inclinations) can render the brains of people in their 80s and 90s as sharp as those of their grandchildren. Health problems are also a factor in brain deterioration. Besides Alzheimer’s, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, depression, insomnia and stress can adversely affect memory.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicated that middle-aged and elderly people with high blood sugar actually have a smaller hippocampus, the region of the brain so crucial for recent memory. (I thought it was a trendy, Liberal Arts College, myself.) Blood sugar has always been a natural suspect because scientists have long known that diabetics are at higher than normal risk for memory problems. Diabetes harms blood vessels that supply the brain, heart and other organs. This new study found that memory may be harmed long before the onset of diabetes and that it’s a problem of fuel, not plumbing. For people with other health risks that go along with obesity, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, the risk of developing severe memory loss (dementia) is six times greater than people without these conditions.

According to Dr. Antonio Convit of New York University, there is some good news. If the findings of this study are confirmed, simple diet and exercise could help many people protect their brains. Maybe the threat of memory loss (if one can remember, that is) will provide the final push for aging baby boomers to take those steps. "It’s a great motivator to stay off the calories and get off that couch," he said.

Dr. Convit studied 30 non-diabetic, middle-aged and elderly people. He measured how they performed on several memory tests, how quickly they metabolized sugar after a meal, and, using MRI scans, the size of the hippocapmus. The slower these healthy people metabolized blood sugar, the worse their memory was and the smaller their hippocampus was as well. According to Dr. Convit, the longer glucose remains in the bloodstream instead of being metabolized into body tissues, the less fuel the brain has to store memories.

There have been several other studies that offer hope and insight into this important issue. In Sweden, Miia Kivipelto of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm studied 1,500 people over a period of 21 years. She and her team of colleagues observed that people in their 50s who were obese ran twice the risk of developing significant memory loss. A study conducted at Harvard Medical School by Jae Hee Kang concluded that middle-aged women who ate great quantities of leafy green or cruciferous vegetables helped preserve their brainpower years later. The anti-oxidants contained in the vegetables help to ward off damage to the brain by molecules thought to accelerate aging, Kang says. Still another Swedish study of 800 seniors concluded that those who regularly engaged in activities that were intellectually challenging, social and involved a physical component had the best chance of avoiding dementia. According to neurologist Marilyn Albert, "It’s never too late to adopt a healthier life style. Now we know there’s so much we can do to help our brains."

In a recent report from the American Academy of Neurology, researchers concluded that reducing high blood pressure, losing weight and lowering cholesterol levels might be factors in the preservation of intellectual capacities in old age. The researchers examined data from 3,555 Japanese-American men who have been enrolled since the mid-1960s in the Honolulu Heart Program. They identified men with elevated blood-glucose levels, blood pressure and body weight as well as high cholesterol and triglyceride levels. They found that men who suffered from such vascular problems during middle age were more likely to suffer from impaired judgement, memory loss and other symptoms of dementia by the time they were in their seventies. In all, 215 men were diagnosed with dementia.

Memory is very much "state dependent", which means that you might remember what happened the last time you drank too much champagne yesterday if you drink some more champagne today. This is not to say that this is a recommended course of action, for some memories may be better off not being recalled. However, know that if you don’t remember things today, it might not be because you forgot something yesterday. There’s hope as well as light at the end of that tunnel (that is, if you can remember where the tunnel was). So avoid comatose behavior and live clean and sweet. It will make the memories all the more so and you a much happier middle-aged soul in search of a productive life.

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Copyright 2004