Contrary to popular belief, memory loss and cognition issues are not an inevitable part of aging.
We have all had one or more of these experiences. You walk into a room, and suddenly can’t remember why, or, you cannot find your car keys, or you blank-out on the name of an acquaintance you run into. When these kinds of things occur, especially as you grow older, you may panic and think you are experiencing age-related memory loss.
The experiences mentioned above, and other so-called “senior moments” can be perfectly normal, and related to other factors – most likely stress – that can cause memory issues.
Memory, Cognition and Aging
A common “memory myth” is as we grow from childhood to adulthood, brain cells begin to die off, and are not replaced. That is not true.
Your brain is capable of producing new brain cells throughout your life. So major cognitive decline and memory loss are not an inevitable consequence of growing older. But just as it is with your ability to build and maintain strength and muscle mass, keeping your brain healthy and strong, requires a bit more work in your 50’s or 60’s, than it did in your twenties or thirties.
Your lifestyle, health habits, and daily activities have a huge impact on the health of your brain, particularly as you begin to face the hormonal and other physical changes that occur as you age.
However, the good news is, just as you can take actions and make lifestyle changes to maintain physical performance as you get older, there are ways you can maintain peak mental performance at any age.
Normal Memory Issues Vs Dementia
The minor memory lapses that occur as we get older can be annoying, frustrating, and even scary. But, technical and scientific definitions aside, the major difference between simple age-related memory loss, and much more serious dementia, is that if frustration and annoyance is the only problem, it’s not a major problem!
In other words, as maddening as minor memory loss can be, if it is not interfering with your ability to carry-on with your day-to-day activities, it is likely nothing more than stress-related, or “normal” memory loss.
If, on the other hand, your memory loss, or that of a loved one, becomes so extensive and severe that it has a strong negative impact on your work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, you may be experiencing the early warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, or another condition that causes or mimics dementia.
Defy Aging and Keep Your Brain Active
“Use it or lose it” – a phrase that applies to your muscle tone and your brainpower!
There have been several recent studies of the levels of dementia in very old populations that back up the mounting evidence that keeping your mind stimulated and active, can stave off age-related cognitive difficulties.
Sandra Bond Chapman, founder of the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas-Dallas, has published on-going research that indicates participating in challenging activities strengthens and preserves cognitive capacity as people age. Her studies found that even simple activities such as reading, writing, playing games and doing puzzles may protect brain health.
A similar study was presented at the 98th scientific assembly and annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in Chicago, which concluded, “reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting a library, attending a play, or playing games such as chess or checkers, are all simple activities that can contribute to a healthier brain…”
Interestingly enough, it is not just mental “exercise” that can help keep you sharp as you age. Studies have found that physical exercise can help as well. Physical exercise releases endorphins, and other brain chemicals such as brain derived neurotrophic factor (bdnf). Bdnf is known to support the survival of neurons and the growth of new neural connections. Increased levels of bdnf has been confirmed in recent studies to improve mental acuity.
Reverse Aging with Hormone Therapy
There was a time when Hormone Replacement Therapy, or HRT, specifically estrogen in women, was thought to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive issues later in life. Like so many other HRT myths, this one has since been busted.
A study published as recently as 2013, found women who were on HRT were no more likely to develop cognitive issues than those who were not.
The study tracked women aged 50 to 55 who were on HRT for at least seven years, and found they had no more evidence of cognitive problems or memory in their 60’s, then those in the study who were merely taking placebos.
In fact, hormone therapy, particularly testosterone replacement in men has been shown to improve cognition. Testosterone therapy has also been used to successfully treat the “mental fogginess” often reported by menopausal and post-menopausal women.
We now have a vast and growing amount of evidence that the process of normal aging is associated with a number of changes to the neurotransmitters and synaptic transmissions in the brain.
The levels of those brain chemicals are largely related to proper hormone levels. HRT along with proper diet, physical and mental exercise, and specific lifestyle interventions, can help you stay mentally sharp as you age.