The confidence-eroding hunt for missing phones and spectacles is distressing; as is witnessing the mildly bemused gaze of afflicted family members. Conversation is a hide-and-seek of words. The American Medical Association says that if people can provide considerable detail of their memory failure and are more concerned about their lapses than are family and friends, they’re more likely experiencing age-related memory loss, not dementia.
That’s reassuring, but research from the Mayo Clinic is not. It shows that people with memory concerns are 56% more likely than those without to receive a diagnosis of dementia within six years. Most of us assume that we will, in old age, experience memory problems, but in August scientists discovered that memory loss can be prevented, and reversed, by replenishing brain protein. While the new research is being hailed as ground-breaking, Dr Kate Irving, who runs the Memory Works clinic at DCU, is sceptical. “I rail against the notion that an injection of protein will reverse memory problems. I believe that, at best, a small number of people will benefit from this type of treatment. In my view, the researchers may as well go in search of the fountain of youth as attempt to solve forgetfulness with a single chemical.” As memory assessment co-ordinator for Community Action on Dementia in Mayo, Paula Frain differentiates age-related forgetfulness from dementia. “If memory progressively deteriorates from month to month, or if it impacts on language or the ability to reason, judge, focus or pay attention, these are signs that there may be something more at play than normal, age-related memory loss.”
Fear of a dementia diagnosis prevents many people from going for memory testing. “Very many of those we test learn that their forgetfulness is either perfectly normal or easily treated, so there’s no need for fear. For those who have dementia, there’s reassurance that there’s a lot that we can do to help them to live well with the condition. For them, early diagnosis and intervention is hugely beneficial,” says Frain.
The factors that impact memory are diverse. For singer Eminem, it was a five-year addiction to prescription drugs; for actress Reese Witherspoon, it was the birth of her son; for comedian Billy Connolly, it was Parkinson’s disease.
Gender is a factor. Men in their 70s and 80s are more likely than women of the same age to develop memory and cognitive problems, despite women being more likely than men to develop Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Education reduces that risk. Women who are well-educated are 45% less likely to experience dementia. Other triggers for memory loss include stress, poverty, low mood and sleep-deprivation. Obesity and forgetfulness were linked when cognitive tests on postmenopausal women showed that those with the highest BMI (body-mass index) scored lowest. The bodily location of older women’s weight affects their cerebral sharpness. In mental tests, the apple-shaped score higher than the pear-shaped.
If the latter are over 65 and go to the gym, they have a 30% lower risk of mental decline than the sedentary. Drinking two cups of cocoa per day sharpens the memory. Diet is important. UK nutritionist, Dr Marilyn Glenville says that while a diet of fresh fruit, vegetables, oily fish and olive oil is good for the brain, memory is boosted by egg yolks, soya and nuts.
Nutritional therapist Heather Leeson agrees. “Including protein with every meal and snack, eating regularly, and avoiding sugar and refined carbohydrates are other ways in which we can aid memory.”
When there are no medical reasons for forgetfulness, memory can be learned. Charles Garavan is founder of the Memory Academy and author of How Best to Learn and Remember for Leaving Certificate.
Garavan can memorise a shuffled deck of cards in 58 seconds and a 1,800-digit binary number in 30 minutes.
He says memory failure is often attention failure. “Those who can’t remember where they put their glasses probably put them down without making any effort to remember where they were putting them.”
Robert Marsh (69) used to have a good memory. Then the Crossmolina man began to forget names and while they sometimes flashed into his mind later in the day, he grew worried.
“My wife and daughter thought I was slowing down too much,” he says. “They noticed that when they asked me questions, my answers came more slowly than they used to. I decided that if I had dementia I should know, so I went to Paula Frain for memory testing.” Marsh was one of the lucky ones. Within 45 minutes of sitting down to do the test, he got the all-clear.
SCIENTISTS at Columbia University have discovered age-related memory loss is both preventable and reversible and that the key trigger for the condition is a deficiency of the brain protein RBAp48.
As we age, we lose some of that protein. The loss impacts negatively on our ability to remember. In confirming that the protein is not linked to the plaques and tangles in the brain which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and that different parts of the brain are impacted by age-related memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers also showed that these are two separate medical issues.
The study, which was published in the Science Translational Medicine journal in August, was led by Nobel laureate, Eric R Kandel, MD.