Memory loss is often associated with getting older but it can happen to anyone at any age. If you are older, the first conclusion you may jump to if your memory isn’t as good as it used to be is that you’re getting Alzheimer’s. But fortunately this is rarely the case.
While experiencing noticeable memory decline is not considered normal, there are many causes and most are not serious. Often, some simple adjustments to your lifestyle are all that’s required to get your brain back on track. (Read this article on 50 ways to improve your memory.) More serious memory loss causes include nutritional deficiencies and underlying health conditions.
Everyday Causes of Memory Loss
The reasons for memory loss and other signs of cognitive decline are almost always linked to poor lifestyle habits. And as odd as that sounds, this is actually great news!
This means that by simply making healthier choices, you can stop and even reverse signs of memory loss as well as other signs of mental decline such as difficulty with learning, attention, focus, decision making, mood, and processing speed. Here are lifestyle factors that commonly contribute to memory loss.
The rule of thumb is to drink 8 glasses of water per day, but that advice is overly simplistic. And drinking when you’re thirsty isn’t the key either. By the time you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated (3). And, of course, when you exercise you need to drink even more. Ninety minutes of sweating can temporarily shrink the brain as much as one year of aging does (4).
This hydration calculator will tell you exactly how much water you should drink per hour. If you exercise outdoors, it even takes into account the temperature and amount of cloud cover.
Eating a brain-healthy diet is simple. But as they say, “simple isn’t always easy.” A large portion of what you need to know about diet can be summed up in three words: Eat real food. Not the kind that comes in a can, package, or box.
Prepackaged foods almost always contain brain-unhealthy ingredients, even if you buy them from the health food store. Eating unprocessed food assures that you won’t be ingesting common chemical additives that adversely affect your brain. Three of the worst are the artificial sweeteners Aspartame and Sucralose, and MSG. These are known excitotoxins, which means they literally excite brain cells to death.
MSG is ubiquitous in processed foods. It’s almost always present in soy products that have “hydrolized protein” on the label. Since MSG is not required to be on ingredient labels, you almost certainly are getting more of it than you realize. If your bag of chips or frozen dinner contains innocuous sounding ingredients like “seasoning,” “spices” or “natural” flavorings, it’s highly likely it contains MSG. Taking an antioxidant supplement can protect brain cells from MSG damage if it does finds it way into your diet (5).
Brain cells need twice as much energy as other cells and they get this energy almost exclusively from glucose. Your brain cells can’t store energy, so they need a steady supply of glucose from your bloodstream. The key word in that sentence is steady. But eating white sugar (and other refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup and maple syrup) sends your blood sugar levels on a roller coaster ride.
Of all the foods we eat, sugar is considered by many to be the most harmful, yet the average American annually consumes 156 pounds of the stuff (6). Poor memory formation, learning disorders, and depression have been linked to eating refined sugar. Chronically high blood sugar levels lead to decreased activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain most associated with memory. Excessive glucose affects your attention span, your short term memory, and your mood stability. It increases free radical damage and inflammation of the brain. It can even change your brainwave patterns, making it hard to think clearly (7).
Low Fat Diets
Your brain needs healthy fats like the kind found in nuts, avocados, oily fish, olive oil, and coconut oil. Your brain is largely made of fat, 60 percent by volume. It has a higher cholesterol content than any other organ. In fact, about 25 percent of the body’s cholesterol is found in the brain.
And the low fat diets that have been promoted now for years have been a disaster for our brains. They haven’t helped us lose weight and may even be responsible for the rise in cases of Alzheimer’s. Dr. David Perlmutter is uniquely qualified to speak about the effects of food on the brain. He is a neurologist with an active practice and a Fellow of the American College of Nutrition. He is also the author of the bestselling book Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar — Your Brain’s Silent Killers. Dr. Perlmutter discovered that nothing was worse for his patients’ brains than a low fat diet. He counters all the conventional anti-cholesterol wisdom by telling us to think of cholesterol as our brain’s friend!
Studies back this up. Low cholesterol increases the risk of suicide, depression, and dementia. The risk of dementia is reduced by 70 percent in those with high cholesterol (8). You read that right. We’ve had this all wrong. High cholesterol reduces the risk of dementia!
Here is Harvard School of Public Health’s mea culpa concerning low fat diets: “Well it’s time to end the low-fat myth. The low-fat approach to eating hasn’t helped us control weight or become healthier. Why hasn’t cutting fat from the diet paid off as expected? Detailed research — much of it done at Harvard — shows that the total amount of fat in the diet isn’t really linked with weight or disease.”
A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 43 percent of Americans rarely get a good night’s sleep. Sixty percent say that they experience sleep problems almost every night (9). Getting 8 hours of sleep is no indulgence, it’s critical for your health and mental well-being. It’s during sleep that your brain repairs itself, washes out toxic debris, and consolidates memories. Lack of quality sleep will impair your memory, creativity, judgment, and attention.
One of the worst sleep thieves is our modern electronics. Your TV, computer, and iPad all give off blue light that signals your brain that it’s daytime — time to be alert (10). Turning off your electronic devices a few hours before bedtime is one of the best things you can do to get the sleep your brain needs.
Our bodies are meant to move, but most of us spend 10-12 hours a day sitting. All this sitting contributes to memory lapses, brain shrinkage, cognitive decline, and even Alzheimer’s. It’s thought that exercise might be the single most important thing to keep your brain functioning like it should — even more important than thinking.
Exercise moves more oxygen and nutrients to your brain. It also increases a brain chemical called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which stimulates new brain cell production (11). Exercising moderately actually is better for your brain than exercising strenuously. Walking or exercises with a strong mind-body connection like yoga, tai chi, or qi gong may provide the best benefits for the brain (12).
Our society has a weird attitude towards stress. We equate it with being productive and successful. But, in fact, stress is a shortcut to the nursing home.
Prolonged stress leads to anxiety, depression, poor decision making, insomnia, and memory loss. It puts you at greater risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s. Stress can literally cause your brain to shrink. And that’s as harmful as it sounds. Too much of the stress hormone cortisol leads to a surplus of free radicals — unattached oxygen molecules — that punch holes in the brain cell walls, causing them to rupture and die. Cortisol also halts the formation of BDNF, which is integral in forming new brain cells (13).
The best stress reduction techniques are exercise and meditation. Over 1000 studies have proven the health benefits of meditation (14). The brain benefits of meditation include improved memory, learning ability, and mood, increased focus and attention, and even reversal of brain atrophy.
Nutritional Deficiencies That Cause Memory Loss
You might think that nutritional deficiencies are a thing of the past, but that’s not true. They’re a surprising reason for memory loss that few people suspect. Here are the three most common deficiencies that affect memory and overall brain health and function.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
The renowned Framingham Heart Study revealed that 70 percent of us are deficient in omega-3 fatty acids (15). This deficiency has been linked to measurably smaller brains, diminished brain function, and psychiatric disorders. One omega-3, DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), is a particularly important building of block brain cells. Memory loss, depression, mood swings, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and attention deficit disorder have all been found to improve with omega-3 supplementation (16).
Vitamin B12 is the most common vitamin deficiency. Two high risk groups are seniors, who often have poor absorption, and vegetarians. Since B12 is reliably found only in animal products, 90 percent of vegans are deficient (17, 18). Vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to memory loss and brain fog, and can lead to more serious brain disorders including dementia, depression, and schizophrenia (19). If you suspect you are low, you can take a vitamin B12 supplement as an inexpensive memory loss treatment. It’s recommended you also have a blood test to know your B12 levels for sure.
Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, is essential for brain development during all stages of life from pre-natal through senior years (20). Getting adequate vitamin D throughout adult life can ward off cognitive decline, dementia, and Alzheimer’s (21, 22). Vitamin D can lift your mood, improve memory, and increase problem-solving ability.
Yet it’s estimated that only 25 percent of Americans get enough (23). The biggest reason is that we no longer spend time outdoors like we used to. And when we do, we cover up with sunscreen. In the U.S., if you live north of Atlanta, it’s almost impossible to get all the sun exposure you need year round. There are few food sources of vitamin D, so if you can’t get adequate sunshine you need to take a vitamin D supplement.
Underlying Health Conditions
There are many health conditions that contribute to cognitive problems. Some of the more common medical conditions that list memory loss as a major or minor symptom include:
- Brain injuries
- Heavy metal poisoning
- Lyme disease
- Multiple sclerosis
- Sleep disorders
- Substance abuse (alcohol and drugs)
- Thyroid disorders
Memory problems and other signs of cognitive decline are so common with certain diseases that they have their own catch phrases. The fuzzy thinking associated with cancer and chemotherapy treatments is known as “chemo brain.” The brain fog that accompanies fibromyalgia is often referred to as “fibro fog.” If you have one of these health conditions and are suffering with loss of memory, don’t put up with it. Talk to your doctor about it.
But depend on yourself, too. Your health challenge makes it even more important that you take excellent care of your brain by eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of rest, minimizing stress, and walking or doing some other gentle exercise.
When The Treatment Is the Cause
Many medications prescribed to treat many health conditions can be a major culprit in causing memory loss symptoms. Unfortunately, some medications create more problems than they solve. Two of the worst medications that cause memory loss are sleeping pills and cholesterol lowering medications.
Prescription sleeping pills are notorious for causing loss of memory. The popular drug Ambien has been coined by some as “the amnesia drug.” Some users experience sleep walking, sleep driving, sleep sex, sleep eating, and worse! Just Google “Ambien made me do it” and you’ll see what I mean. There’s some jaw-dropping stuff there.
Prescription sleeping pills put you in a state similar to being passed out drunk or in a coma, while bypassing the restorative powers of sleep (24). This discovery is profound. In this state, you’re missing out on all the essential brain benefits of sleep.
Statins are cholesterol-lowering medications that might just be the single worst group of drugs for your brain (25). Memory loss is now required to be listed as a side effect on the prescription bottle label.
Cholesterol is necessary for memory, learning, and thinking. So it is not a total surprise that cholesterol-lowering drugs negatively impact the brain. Many doctors will simply tell you these side effects are just signs of age and not to worry about it. Don’t believe it. Pharmaceutical companies have a vested interest in continuing to promote this $31 billion industry.
When It Could Be Serious
Everyone has their moments of forgetfulness. Losing car keys, not being able to think of the right word, or not remembering why you walked into a room are pretty typical brain lapses and no cause for alarm. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, signs that your memory loss may be serious include (26):
- Asking the same questions repeatedly
- Forgetting common words when speaking
- Mixing words up — saying “bed” instead of “table,” for example
- Taking longer to complete familiar tasks, such as following a recipe
- Misplacing items in inappropriate places, such as putting a wallet in a kitchen drawer
- Getting lost while walking or driving around a familiar neighborhood
- Undergoing sudden changes in mood or behavior for no apparent reason
- Becoming less able to follow directions
The Next Step
You should now have a good idea of how to improve your memory loss. You might first want to get an idea how your memory rates by taking a reputable memory test. Then, take stock of your lifestyle and begin making appropriate changes. This alone will make a huge difference in the quality of thinking for most people.
Make sure your brain’s basic nutritional needs are met. If you don’t know where to begin, start with a high-quality multivitamin. Studies have shown that this alone can improve brain function (27).
If you have an underlying health condition, discuss your cognitive problems with your doctor. This would also be an excellent time to discuss any medications you’re taking to make sure they aren’t the source of your problem.