No, Memory Loss Is Not Normal — How To Protect Your Brain, From An Integrative Neurologist
Everyone forgets things now and then. But lapses in memory seem to be increasingly common with age—along with a growing worry about what they mean about your health. Most people in their 20s won't bat an eye if they can't place someone's name, but the words dementia or Alzheimer's may creep into your thoughts if this happens in your 50s. Since only about 1 in every 1,000 older adults1 is completely free from any cognitive deterioration, does this support the notion that some extent of memory loss is just to be expected with age?
We tapped an integrative neurologist for her insights and for what you can do now to protect your memory.
Is any amount of memory loss a normal part of aging?
"In traditional neurology, we do not consider memory loss normal," says Romie Mushtaq, M.D. "Of course, under prolonged stress, sleep deprivation, and depression as we age, we may have a change in cognition."
Occasionally forgetting where you put your keys is normal at any age—and some people are more prone to these kinds of slips than others. But this isn't a trait that's destined to become more prevalent with age.
"When we are consistently losing items we commonly use, like our keys, phone, or wallet), it is not considered normal," emphasizes Romie.
Are there signs that forgetfulness is actually something more serious?
There are several signs it may be time to talk with a doctor about your memory loss.
"It can start with several missed regular bills and problems managing bank balances," Romie points out. "Other common signs are a difficulty in remembering words and people's names in your life (like office colleagues and extended family members) and getting lost driving to places you regularly visit."
These scenarios could be indicative that something more clinical is going on.
Memory-related clinical conditions
Thinking that something is off with your memory or cognition can feel very scary. Your health care provider will conduct a comprehensive evaluation to help you determine the root cause of what you're experiencing. Common conditions related to memory loss include mild cognitive impairment and dementia:
- Mild cognitive impairment2 is a condition in which people have more memory loss than their similarly aged peers. But this type of memory loss doesn't impact how someone goes about their daily activities.
- Dementia, on the other hand, is the loss of overall cognitive functioning (Alzheimer's disease falls under this). Memory loss does accompany dementia, but there are also additional signs including poor judgment, difficulty paying attention, and trouble with spatial awareness.
How can you protect your memory as you age?
Lifestyle greatly impacts your brain health, and there are several steps you can take now to help preserve your memory later.
"As we approach 40, there are few key recommendations we give to people to protect their brains against the inflammation that can lead to clinical memory loss (dementia)":
- Eat an anti-inflammatory diet: Diets that focus on fiber, fruits and vegetables (therefore antioxidants), and healthy omega-3 fats—like the Mediterranean diet—can help protect the brain from inflammation3. Other nutritional ingredients—like citicoline, resveratrol, amino acids, and botanicals—have memory-supporting properties and are found naturally in foods or in supplements. Here are some of our favorite supplements with these brain-supporting ingredients.
- Focus on blood sugar balance: Romie also emphasizes the importance of following a low-glycemic eating pattern. "As physicians, we monitor fasting blood glucose levels and hemoglobin A1C levels to assess a person's blood sugar," says Romie. High blood sugar levels for a prolonged period lead to insulin resistance (aka cells don't respond to the blood-sugar-lowering hormone). And the term "Type 3 diabetes4" is now being used to describe insulin resistance specifically in the brain, which is a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease.
- Practice meditation: "Studies have shown that 20 minutes a day of meditation can protect memory5 and in fact boost BNP [a protein] in the brain that grows memory cells," Romie adds.
- Maintain social connections: Social isolation is one of the most dangerous risk factors for memory loss and cognitive decline6. "In our digital age, we are missing out on the ability to learn how to make and foster meaningful social connections in person," says Romie. Having meals together, being involved in your community, and taking a walk with a friend can foster a sense of community and connection.
Memory loss (to some degree at least) is often considered synonymous with aging. But they don't have to go hand-in-hand. It's important to seek medical advice if you feel like you are, or if you've noticed a loved one, struggling with memory or having problems completing everyday tasks. We all want to have an active, curious mind at every life stage, and optimizing your brain health for your later decades starts with making lifestyle changes in your 20s and 30s.
Molly Knudsen, M.S., RDN is a Registered Dietician Nutritionist and mindbodygreen's supplements editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Texas Christian University and a master’s in nutrition interventions, communication, and behavior change from Tufts University. She lives in Boston, Massachusetts and enjoys connecting people to the food they eat and how it influences health and wellbeing.