Common Memory Problems Solved

From "mommy brain" to forgetting people's names (again...and again), your most common memory woes—solved.


memory-users-manual
James Archer/Anatomy Blue
So you keep misplacing your keys and walking into the living room without remembering why. That doesn't mean you've got early Alzheimer's: "Normal memory problems—like being a little forgetful—start as early as age 27," says Majid Fotuhi, MD, chairman of the Neurology Institute for Brain Health and Fitness in Baltimore and author of The Memory Cure.

Luckily, your memory is like a muscle, Dr. Fotuhi says—you can exercise it and improve it at any age. Here are some smart moves to help you do just that.

Problem #1: Stress
The lowdown: "In our fast-paced, wired world, many of us live our lives in chronic stress," says Gary Small, MD, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and author of The Alzheimer's Prevention Program. That means we're perpetually bathing our brains in stress hormones like cortisol. The result? Studies done in mice show that chronically elevated stress hormone levels shrink the hippocampus, so you're less likely to form new memories.

You get a similar result if you're struggling with depression. "Some studies suggest that depressed individuals have fewer hippocampal neurons," says Gary Kennedy, MD, director of the division of geriatric psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. Other research has found that depressed people have lower levels of brain-derived neutrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that promotes the health of brain neurons, and thus boosts memory function.

The Rx: Unfortunately, there's no way to get rid of stress entirely. But you can at least try to keep your anxiety levels at a minimum. Dr. Small's number-one tactic? Meditation. One recent Harvard study found that participants who meditated for about 30 minutes a day over eight weeks increased their hippocampus size. "Meditation also fires up the frontal areas of the brain that are associated with attention," Dr. Small says. That means you'll be less likely to focus on feeling stressed or down, and more able to concentrate on the tasks at hand, so you can actually remember what's going on.

Here's a super easy way to start: Get comfortable and begin breathing slowly and deeply. Expand your rib cage as you inhale; feel your abdomen rise with each intake of breath. Stay relaxed and focus on each breath in and out. Start with three minutes and work up to 30.

If you suspect you're depressed—say, you're having persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" feelings that last more than a couple of weeks, and other symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, and loss of interest in hobbies—get a referral for a good psychologist or psychiatrist, who can provide counseling and possibly medication.

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By Hallie Levine Sklar
Last Updated: June 11, 2012

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