Oct. 2, 2009
by Dr. Julian Whitaker
A few days ago a song got stuck in my head- the slow, haunting violin melody that set the mood in the movie Platoon. But I couldn’t recall who wrote it, and it bugged me. Later, when I wasn’t thinking about it, I suddenly remembered it was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
We all have episodes like this. We forget names and misplace things. We lose our train of thought, and we walk into rooms with no recollection of why we went there in the first place. This is normal human behavior. Now, forgetting a close family member’s name, constantly repeating yourself, or getting lost in familiar places is another issue. Still, even run-of-the-mill memory lapses can be disconcerting, especially if you’re older. You may wonder, “Am I losing it? Is Alzheimer’s just around the corner?”
It’s a valid fear. More than 5 million Americans are living with this disease, and the older you are, the greater your risk. The upside is that there are a number of steps you can take to maintain and actually improve your memory. Let’s take a look at the latest research.
Australian researchers reported in a 2008 JAMA study that when people with mild memory problems exercised for 50 minutes three times a week, their cognitive function was enhanced. The exercise wasn’t strenuous- most people walked. But the results were significant and improvements endured for at least a year, even though the study lasted only 24 weeks.
Among its many benefits, exercise improves blood flow to the brain. This three-pound organ consumes about 20 percent of the oxygen and glucose you take in, and when poor circulation hampers their delivery, memory is obviously affected. Physical activity also helps control blood pressure, blood sugar, and weight. Hypertension is the number-one cause of “mini-strokes” that can lead to severe cognitive dysfunction. Diabetes before age 65 doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And abdominal obesity during midlife triples the risk of dementia at age 70!
Take a Look at Your Drug Regimen
A host of drugs can impair memory, and the usual suspects- sedatives, sleep aids, painkillers, and psychiatric meds- are just the tip of the iceberg.
Zantac and Tagamet, acid blockers for ulcers and GERD, have been found to cause memory decline in a third of older people who use them. Statin drugs prescribed for lowering cholesterol are linked with both acute temporary amnesia and long-term cognitive problems. Some antihistamines (Benadryl and Sudafed), antibiotics (Cipro and Keflex), antihypertensive medications (beta-blockers), and anticholinergics (used to treat asthma as well as urinary and gastrointestinal problems) are also implicated in cognitive dysfunction, especially in older people.
Talk to your doctor if you’re on any drugs. Safe alternatives are available for virtually all of them.
Consider Hormone Replacement Therapy
Hormone replacement therapy ameliorates many aspects of aging, including memory loss. Cognitive problems are a well-recognized symptom of hypothyroidism, or low thyroid function. In fact, this condition can actually mimic Alzheimer’s. Because a significant percentage of older women and men have undiagnosed hypothyroidism, I encourage everyone over age 50 to have their thyroid hormone levels checked. Natural thyroid replacement can make a world of difference.
The research on estrogen and testosterone isn’t as clear cut. However, my clinical experience has been that men who use supplemental testosterone and women who use bioidentical hormone replacement therapy usually report improvements in alertness, concentration, and overall sense of well-being.