11 Facts of Why We Lose Our Memory
As they say, forewarned is forearmed. When you know what can impair your memory — you have already won the half of the battle to keep it healthy for your whole life. Memory problems may appear at any age, as the reasons for forgetfulness are diverse and numerous. Oftentimes, you can help yourself by simply changing your habits, lifestyle, or food preferences. For more details, we invite you to read this review.
There are several approaches to understanding human memory. A famous American psychologist, Robert J. Sternberg, said once that memory is the tool of the brain to build up experience of the past and use it in the present.
It is also involved in planning the future by learning and processing information.
In fact, memory is a complex phenomenon of the human mind, it employs different parts of the central nervous system, and it consists of several main stages:
- first of all, the information is perceived by the brain through the sensory organs and encoded there. Working memory, which is also known as short-term memory, uses mostly pictures or sounds to code information, while long-term memory is mostly semantic, and it uses meaning to write down what we see and hear. This first stage of memory as a process is called “registration” or “encoding;”
- after data is received and recorded, it has to be stored. This is the time for the second stage of memory, referred to as retention, or simply storage. From the name, we can see that it deals with the capacity of humans to keep information inside their heads;
- retrieval, or recall, is the final process that takes place when we take the information out of storage.
Scientists hypothesize that the majority of all problems with memory are related to impaired registration. The problem is that the tests and experiments that evaluate memory can measure the ability of the brain to recall. All the more, they rarely provide high validity in their results. This happens because the experiments are usually carried out in laboratories, where the subjects do not feel natural. Thus, they do not behave or think normally.
The physiology of memory includes such areas of the brain as the cerebral cortex, hippocampus, amygdalae, mammillary bodies, and the striate nucleus. The damage to these brain areas can cause severe memory problems, including retrograde and anterograde amnesia. People can lose the ability to recall old or recent events due to psychological traumas, certain drugs, diseases, etc. Acute emotions, stress, abnormal brain chemistry, and many other factors are also in the list of those that alter registration, retention, or recall. We can avoid some of them, and the negative effects of the others can be alleviated. Let’s look at the major risks, and more importantly — the measures to take in order to reduce them.
Frequent Reasons for Forgetfulness
Have you noticed that you cannot remember where you’ve put your phone, or cannot keep in your mind the plans you’ve made recently? Let us guess, the first thing that popped into your mind when that happened was Alzheimer’s, right? This is the first and one of the biggest fears of people with a troublesome memory. It’s not without reason that people worry about it, because little but regular episodes of forgetfulness can really be a wake-up call.
Still, you should not stress out or sink into depression. This will only aggravate the problem and definitely won’t help. Oftentimes, emotional problems or exhaustion are the reason for occasional and temporary memory ailments. What you have to do is to go to your doctor, because only a healthcare professional can identify the true roots of your troubles.
Do not be surprised when your physician asks you about things that are barely allied with memory, like your diet or physical activities. The brain is the chief organ in the human body, but its productivity totally depends on your everyday life. When you know the reasons, it is much easier to find the remedy. But it is very unlikely that you can find them individually, and this is why self-treatment is highly not recommended. Here are the most common facts of why we may face memory loss.
Here are a couple of questions for you:
- Do you feel tired and sleepy right after you get out of your bed in the morning?
- Do you suffer from headaches during the day?
- Does your partner comment on your loud snoring frequently?
- Have you ever measured your neck size? Check to make sure it is no more than 17 inches if you are a man, and 16 inches if you are a woman.
- Do you have hypertension?
- Are you obese?
If all your answers are positive, the chances are high that you have sleep apnea (SA). Even three “yes’s” are an alarming sign. So, what is sleep apnea? This is a health condition when a person stops breathing for some time, or has extremely shallow breathing during nighttime sleep. It markedly decreases the quality of sleep, and instead of recuperative rest in bed, a man (the vast majority of SA patients are men) gets an exhausting and stressful night.
Why is it bad? These respiratory pauses and slowdowns lead to oxygen deprivation in the brain. This, in turn, causes a lack of alertness and focus, dizziness, and impaired thinking, learning, and memory. Scientists from the University of Western Australia investigated the correlations between obstructive sleep apnea and memory problems. Their findings suggest that patients with this sleep disorder have declined learning abilities, verbal recognition, and recall. More scientific studies have established that sleep apnea accelerated the cognitive decline in the elderly, increased the risk of strokes, and even damaged brain cells, especially those associated with memory.
Is there a way to fix this problem? Yes, the main problem is to diagnose SA, because it does not hurt and many people are not aware of it until they are specially examined. Two major types of sleep apnea are treated differently. Obstructive SA, which occurs when the airflow is blocked by the soft tissues in the throat area, can be managed by quitting alcohol and cigarettes, losing weight, tapering off certain drugs, etc. In case this does not help, the special mechanical oral appliances, or the surgical procedures can be administered.
The treatment of central SA is more complicated, as it is the case when the brain forgets to breathe. This is really bad, as the body does not react to low blood oxygen and does not even send a signal to the lungs to inhale. It can even cause sudden death, however this is very rarely the case. Central SA can be treated with the help of rhythmic electrical impulses applied to the diaphragm, or certain medications. Rare cases of mixed sleep apnea also occur.
SA is only one of many sleep disorders, and it does not make any difference about why you do not have enough rest at night. The result is always the same — this leads to poor cognition, concentration, and weak memory. Maybe not as severe as SA, but still, such maladies as insomnia, jet lag, shift work sleep disorder, and others, are also bad for the entire brain’s functioning. Scientists from Denmark and the USA have conducted a couple of animal experiments in order to explore the influence of sleep loss on memory. They’ve found out that it affects the hippocampus and even the form and structure of the nerve cells. Their conclusion was that the nearly everyone’s problem in the 21st century adversely influences people’s health and memory in particular.
Heavy smoking causes chronic tissue hypoxia, and this was established by the Department of Surgery in the University of California, USA. The scientists measured the oxygen tension in patients right after they had smoked their cigarettes, and the tests showed that it decreased significantly and did not normalize for more than a half an hour. This may be due to the vasoconstriction, which leads to poor blood supply to the brain, as well as to other organs. Another research showed, however, that people who had not smoked for a couple of years improved their thinking capacities significantly. Still, the studies evidence that it is better not to start at all, so if you’re thinking about lighting up your first cigarette — don’t.
The Mirror tabloid has published an article about the negative impact of smoking on brain tissues. The author summarized the findings of international research, where scientists provided the evidence of the harmful effect of nicotine consumption on certain areas of the brain. More particularly, they have documented a thinned cerebral cortex in people who regularly smoked during their lives. The shrinkage of the cortex is a natural process which happens with aging, but it is significantly accelerated when an individual smokes. It is widely known that the cerebral cortex is one of the brain areas that is responsible for memory. We can conclude here that in order to keep your memory healthy, you should quit smoking (if you are a smoker), and avoid cigarettes in the future.
Stress and Depression
In case you constantly feel depressed and anxious, you probably will develop memory problems, sooner or later. The scientists from the Panjab University in India have studied various types of stress and how they alter the neurobiology and brain chemistry. Their scientific report claims that stressful events induce the release of cortisol, which in turn adversely affects short-term, episodic, and spatial memory. The acute effects are reversible, while chronic stress leads to severe cognitive impairments. It destroys the connections between neurons and damages brain cells. It happens because the increased cortisol, through the chain of chemical reactions, leads to oxidative stress in the brain.
The Popular Science magazine has published the summaries of the scientific research conducted by the Brigham Young University. Two professors examined 83 participants and measured their level of depression and its impact on memory. The scientists suggested that the depressed brain does not create new neurons, which in turn affects cognitive functions. The doctors from McLean Hospital, USA, confirmed this in their study in 2018. They have also documented the inhibited neurogenesis in the hippocampus and disrupted performance of the dopaminergic neurons. This all can be the reason of memory loss in depressed patients.
The brain is more than 60 percent fat, and a huge part of it is omega-3. Docosahexaenoic acid, DHA for short, is one of the prevalent building materials for the cerebrum and eyes. Myelin sheaths that cover axons and protect them from the hazardous influence of free radicals also consist of fat. This is why it is very important to consume enough poly- and mono-unsaturated fats. Olive oil, fish, beef, eggs, nuts, cheese, seeds, and beans are very good for brain nutrition, and these foods will help you maintain your overall health, as well as prevent memory loss.
The Mediterranean diet is commonly recommended as one of the most balanced and nutritious diets for high brain productivity. In addition to healthy fats, it is comprised of lots of other ingredients, including essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. They protect the brain from oxidative stress, maintain healthy performance of the cardiovascular system, including cerebral vessels, stimulate the production of vitally important neurotransmitters, etc. Try to include more green vegetables, fruits, and berries into your daily menu, drink red wine moderately, eat whole grains, and avoid fast food and semi-processed products. These are very simple rules, but they can help a lot when it comes to protecting memory and cognition.
When talking about the importance of a healthy diet, we cannot help but include a specific reference to certain vitamins, which are especially important for a healthy memory. These essential nutrients are cobalamin and cholecalciferol, or, as we all better know them, vitamin B12 and vitamin D, respectively. Memory problems are often associated with the lack of these substances. Scientists from the USA and United Kingdom observed more than 2,000 patients and found that cholecalciferol deficiency may lead to memory problems. The Indian scientists from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore established the same correlations between memory and a shortage of B12.
An adult person needs around 2.5 mcg of vitamin B12, and 600-800 IU of vitamin D. These amounts can be consumed in your diet, if you eat enough fish, eggs, dairy products, meat, cereals, beef liver, and soybeans. Cholecalciferol is not present in these products as it is, but our bodies synthesize it from foods with the help of daylight, which is why people must spend enough time in the fresh air to get enough sun rays. B12 is consumed directly from foods, and in addition, both nutrients can be taken as dietary supplements.
Side Effects of Medicines
If you start losing your keys and forgetting things, pay attention to the medications you take, if any. The FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) gives the list of medicines, which impair memory:
- sleeping aids and sedatives. Such preparations, as Xanax, Valium, Rozerem, Ambien, etc., have different mechanism of action, but they all have one common side effect — poor cognition and memory;
- allergy medications. Dr. Gary Kay from the Georgetown University School of Medicine, USA, has studied the adverse influence of first-generation antihistamines on the human body. These drugs easily enter the brain and produce a sedative effect. As a result, they inhibit learning and thinking capacities, memory, and attention;
- antidepressants, more particularly — selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. According to the Ahvaz Jundishapur University of Medical Sciences, Iran, regular SSRI intake leads to memory decline;
- problematic memory can be a symptom of high blood pressure;
- many painkillers interfere in the production of certain neurotransmitters, which negatively affect overall brain functioning, moreover, they deteriorate the brain tissues due to poor blood circulation. This all cannot be good for memory, so if you think that your problems are induced by pain relievers, you should talk to your doctor and consider some other therapy;
- medications that lower cholesterol, also known as statins, and certain diabetes medications have memory loss among their possible side effects, too.
No matter what signs of memory decline you observe, it is never a reason to stop taking pills without a doctor’s advice. Cognitive disorders may have many reasons, and only a healthcare professional can give you a valid and useful recommendation. Quitting necessary pills may be as dangerous as overdosing them.
What if you are healthy, eat right, do not drink or smoke, have never abused any drugs, and still feel that something is wrong with your memory? Is this necessarily a sign of some bad neurological disease? No, it is not. Maybe, you’ve had a brain trauma. Try to remember, maybe you’ve got in a car crash, fell, or hit your head badly doing sports; have you been in a fight or another accident where you could have sustained a head injury? The Radiology journal published an article in 2013, where Dr. Yvonne Lui proved that even a single concussion can cause long-term alterations in the brain structure, which may lead to mental impairments.
You should also check your thyroid gland, because its poor performance leads to multiple adverse consequences, including extra weight, chronic fatigue, digestion problems, etc. The gland is located in the neck and secrets several thyroid hormones, which are key for numerous metabolic processes, appetite, cardiovascular health, libido and reproductive function, and brain development. Oftentimes, patients with hypothyroidism have mental problems, including memory decline, disorientation, and lack of concentration.
Low Testosterone Level in Men
Another hormonal problem, which specifically affects men, is testosterone disbalance. Fox News published a review in 2004 where the authors examined memory in cancer patients with testosterone deprivation. They tested 30 men, compared the results, and came to a conclusion that low testosterone causes impaired retention and recall.
Menopause in Women
Shelley Emling, who writes for the Huffington Post, tells us about the research conducted by the University of Rochester. Scientists analyzed the tests of 117 menopausal women and concluded that the hormonal changes during this period of life lead to problems with learning and memory.
Do not forget that human beings are social by nature. The brain needs to be exercised just like the muscles, otherwise it weakens and slackens as we age. Eremitic life is bad for our mental health, as our minds are poorly stimulated and stop working productively in case we do not socialize with other people. Dr. Jean Seguin from Montreal, Canada, has studied the connections between social behavior and cognition. It was suggested that an antisocial lifestyle leads to poor working memory.
Other Causes You Should Think About
The rarer, but still dangerous factors that may be associated with the memory loss are:
- brain infections, such as neurosyphilis, meningitis, encephalitis, etc.;
- cancer, especially brain tumors, and the medications for oncology diseases, e.g. chemotherapy, or radiation therapy;
- abuse of alcohol and drugs;
- chronic migraines, as any other pain, make our brains less productive; this concerns its ability to store and retrieve information, too;
- age-related memory problems are very common in the elderly, and even in those of middle age. The Guardian writes that they may occur in patients as young as 45 years old;
- an individual may develop it after stroke, especially a silent one. Why especially? Because this type of stroke does not have any acute symptoms, and patients oftentimes are not even aware that they’ve got some problems. It does not mean, though, that this illness progresses with no consequences, as the troubled circulation may lead to major cognitive dysfunctions over time;
- the Epilepsy Foundation reported that seizures may impair all stages of memory, attention, and thinking.
You should also pay attention to whether you have enough physical activity, spend time in the fresh air, give yourself ample time for rest, and live an interesting life. Stay positive and avoid boredom, as it will help maintain the health of your brain for a long time.
Ways to Make Your Brain Sharper
Here you are, your brain does not work as it used to, and you are scared, because it is definitely something very bad. You wouldn’t think it, but you are not alone in your fears, and most probably there is nothing to be afraid of. Before you start ringing the tocsin, you should try several simple but effective natural ways to make your brain work more productively:
- do exercises, go to the gym, swim, jog: whatever activity that brings you pleasure plus strengthens your muscles is good. Better blood circulation, increased hormones and neurotransmitters will sharpen your mind notably, starting from the first training;
- meditate, as meditation brings peace to your mind, combats stress and anxiety, and induces the release of dopamine and serotonin, as all this is very good for memory;
- learn new things, e.g. languages, musical instruments, handiwork, etc. Keep your brain busy, and it will serve you much longer;
- avoid sweets, eat more antioxidants;
- establish a proper sleep-wake schedule and stick to it.
As you see, there is nothing you cannot do with these recommendations.
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