Ironically, Delhi-based marketing manager Sakshi Murthy*, 33, remembers the first symptoms of memory loss before it hit her hard. She had been getting more and more listless, and simply disinterested in her everyday chores; even work, for that matter. But the fact that she was forgetting even simple specifics like when and if she had fed her dog, where she had kept her presentation folder, etc, irked her.
“Bad mood and lethargy I could handle, and somehow even spring out of, but this forgetfulness was hampering my everyday working very badly,” she recalls. Murthy dealt with this forgetfulness for almost five months before she took any action. “You know how it is; we don’t take action till we are forced to. And that catalyst for me was the day I went shopping and forgot where I had parked my car in the huge parking lot of the mall. I spent 45 minutes looking for it across two basements. It was harrowing.” This incident prompted her to visit a doctor. “I thought I had Alzheimer’s at the age of 33. After all if I could lose a big thing like a car when I was this young, imagine what I would do when I am 50?”
Photographs by Thinkstock
The stress connection
The neurologist Murthy met first put her at ease, telling her she was not suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. To her surprise, he said the cause for her declining memory was borderline depression and excessive anxiety.
Her lifestyle was a contributory factor too. “The doctor also told me that I was probably not getting the right exercise and food, and the sheer callousness with which I was leading my life was clearly responsible for this condition too,” Murthy says.
On her doctor’s advice, she took up yoga and meditation. She even took time off and went for a short vacation. She made changes to her diet and began noticing an improvement in her memory a couple of months later.
Praveen Gupta, consultant, neurology, Artemis Health Institute, Gurgaon, says: “It has been proved that memory decreases after 30 and the major contributing factors for the loss are stress and depression. Stressed and depressed people are not able to concentrate on day-to-day activities and remember small things in their daily routine. That’s because in these conditions, nerve transmitters get imbalanced, which affects brain function.”
There is a difference between forgetfulness and memory loss. Some people have trouble remembering things all their life, but when this problem crops up suddenly and persists for more than three or four months, you need to see a doctor.
“Many of the brain-healthy habits are the same ones that help fend off other diseases. So memory, although it naturally begins to decline after a certain age due to decrease in brain reserve, also gets affected because of other conditions like chronic diseases such as diabetes. In fact, everything you can do to reduce your risk for atherosclerosis, diabetes and stroke will help you reduce your risk for memory loss too,” says Anupam Verma, consultant, neurology, Jaipur Golden Hospital, Delhi.
High blood sugar too is a direct deterrent to memory power. In a 2008 study, High Blood Sugar Linked to Memory Loss in the Aging Brain, researchers at Columbia University Medical Center, US, concluded that even moderate elevations in blood sugar lead to decreases in blood flow in the part of the hippocampus (part of the brain) which is involved in memory formation.
So following a healthy lifestyle that keeps blood sugar stable and other diseases away, is essential for brain health.
“Overweight people are more prone to memory loss too,” says Dr Gupta. “This is simply because there are higher chances of them suffering from depression, diabetes and high cholesterol. Plus they do less exercise because of which they are more prone to small strokes and obstructive sleep apnea, which again can lead to memory loss.”
Does exercise help?
“Absolutely,” says Dr Verma. “Brain chemistry reveals an essential unity of mind and body; they are tied together. Neurons (brain cells) are connected with skeletal muscle at neuro-muscular junctions where acetylcholine is a primary chemical formed due to exercise. Acetylcholine is necessary for memory and to communicate with muscle for fine motor movements,” he explains.
In fact, as far back as in the May 1990 issue of Neurobiology and Aging, neurobiologist Robert Dustman showed that aerobically fit people had steeper peaks and valleys in brain waves associated with alertness, a sign that they were better able to tune out distractions and focus. Translated to real life, that could mean coming up with a forgotten name more quickly, and sharpening memory in general. “Exercise improves the heart’s ability to pump blood to the brain and increases oxygen and glucose delivery. Plus it helps bust stress, which helps indirectly,” adds Dr Gupta.
There’s another reason why your brain loves physical exercise: It promotes the growth of new brain cells. Earlier, it was believed that we are born with a full complement of neurons and produce no new ones during our lifetime. But Fred Gage, professor, Vi and John Adler chair for research on age-related neurodegenerative diseases, at the laboratory of genetics, Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, proved in 2000 that even adults can grow new brain cells. He found exercise is one of the best ways to achieve this.
Your brain is the greediest organ in your body, with some very specific dietary requirements. According to Ishi Khosla, clinical nutritionist and director, Whole Foods India, New Delhi, memory-boosting nutrients include antioxidants like vitamins A, E and C, found in natural foods such as eggs, carrots, broccoli, fish, nuts, green leafy vegetables and fruits; omega-3 fatty acids found in fish, mustard oil, mustard seeds, methi (fenugreek), urad dal (black gram), rajma (kidney bean), soyabean, lobia (black-eyed bean), walnuts, bajra (pearl millet) and flaxseeds (alsi); vitamin B1, good sources of which include rice bran, wheatgerm, wholewheat flour, barley, maize, eggs and milk; and vitamin B12, which is needed for the proper functioning of the central nervous system—it improves concentration, memory, balance and relieves irritability. Foods like egg, mutton, milk, etc., are good sources for these vitamins.
Besides these, Khosla advises everyone to switch to monounsaturated fatty acids, present in most vegetable oils and particularly, extra virgin olive oil. “These help maintain brain membranes and protect against age-related cognitive decline,” she says. “Also, have a lot of iron-rich foods (extra-lean red meat, cooked dried beans and peas, dark green leafy vegetables and dried apricots) as iron helps carry oxygen to the tissues, including the brain. Low iron levels lead to memory loss too besides fatigue,” she says. “And never ever skip breakfast. The brain is best fuelled by a steady supply of glucose,” she says.
7 ways to boost your brain power
Small things that can help you concentrate better and work faster
• Sleep enough. When we sleep the brain processes new memories, practises new skills and even solves problems. “Sleep helps in resting and rejuvenating the brain. Memory is stored during sleep. If one does not sleep well then memory is not well stored,” warns Dr Praveen Gupta. So make sure you keep aside at least 8 hours for sleep every day.
Plug in: Music helps reduce stress.
• Quit smoking. “Quitting helps as it decreases mental suppression and decreases the risk of micro infarcts (some damage) in the brain,” explains Dr Gupta. “Impairment of memory by smoking has an indirect association with other chronic diseases like cancer, heart diseases and bad effects of toxic chemicals,” adds Dr Anupam Verma. Plus, smoking elevates blood pressure and cholesterol, two risk factors for dementia.
• Drink moderately. “Excessive alcohol suppresses the brain and affects the thinking faculty negatively, making it fuzzy,” says P. N. Renjen, senior consultant, neurology, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi.
• Listen to music. “Music has an amazing power to reduce stress, alleviate, depression and help to store, recall information by which a person can restore his memory,” says Dr Verma.
• Jog your brain. “The more you exercise your brain, the sharper it gets,” says Dr Gupta. “People who regularly read magazines, newspapers and books, and do other cognitive activities like nightly crossword puzzles or play Sudoku, decrease the risk of brain degeneration. The mental stimulation creates new connections between brain cells,” he adds.
• Multitask. Like muscles that get soft and shrink if you stop working out, the brain needs stimulation to stay strong and healthy. “Multitasking really helps as it is very important to stimulate various areas of the brain constantly to keep it buzzing,” explains Dr Renjen.
• Think happy thoughts.“Happy thoughts are a positive phenomenon for hippocampus, and lead to stabilization and restoration of memory,” says Dr
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