What is the best way to keep my mental edge as I grow older?

Our thoughts are very important to us. Our brain controls these thoughts and so much more – thinking, feeling, remembering, working, and playing – even sleeping. When we experience changes to our thoughts, whether it is memory problems, issues in judgment, poor concentration and awareness, or impaired abstract thinking, we should take notice. Most people have attributed this to ‘growing old’ but it is not always the case; many people who live into their 90’s age well, without loss of mental capacities.

For most people the word ‘dementia’ comes to mind, which has connotations of Alzheimer’s disease or even insanity. In reality, people may experience a less severe age-related memory or cognitive impairment than dementia. Cognitive impairment is terminology that features abnormal memory loss relative to one’s age but without the other changes in personality that might characterize dementia.

Certain factors and medical conditions can contribute to a change in memory function. Early diagnosis of these is a patient’s best weapon and is of vital importance. If left unchecked and undiagnosed, these conditions can cause irreversible damage. Consider the following factors to consider when assessing memory loss or poor cognition.

Stress
Everyone experiences a certain amount of stress, and how people cope with it is extremely important. Major life stress and/or prolonged stress can impair memory function and contribute to memory loss. Stress can also cause sleep problems. At least six hours of sleep each night are essential for memory to perform at its peak. Regular sleep habits also make you less forgetful.

Alcohol and Drugs 
It is known that alcohol abuse results in memory loss and possibly dementia. Initially, alcoholics develop short-term memory loss followed by the loss of long-term memory. Alcohol can deplete specific vitamins, especially B vitamins. Both prescription and over-the-counter drugs can affect memory function, as can certain drug interactions. Certain classes of drugs are known to affect memory and brain function. These include sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medications, painkillers, antihistamines (allergy medications) and antidepressants. Several illegal or recreation drugs such as ecstasy and amphetamines, are thought disrupt brain patterns and perhaps even cause damage.

Nutrient Deficiencies
Many nutrients, especially the B vitamins (folic acid, vitamin B 12 and thiamine) are essential for optimal brain function and deficiencies can cause permanent damage to brain cells, Failure to treat these deficiencies leads to worsening memory loss and progressive nerve damage. Essential fatty acids, lacking from diets high in processed foods, are needed for nerve structure and function which can impact memory.

What You Can Do
Fortunately, memory loss caused by illness or lifestyle choices can be prevented or remedied. Modifications to your life style can enhance cognitive function. If you drink alcohol, follow the general guidelines, no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Maintaining proper physical exercise allows for increased blood flow to the brain, as well as reduces stress. Mental exercises like, crossword puzzles, taking a class, and reading or being active in a community book club, play an important role in cognition. Diets high in certain fish with omega 3 fatty acids are especially good for the brain. These fish includes salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, and sardines. Natural products and herbal remedies such as Ginkgo biloba may help with memory problems and cognitive impairment. For best results speak with a health care professional who is knowledgeable in natural medicine before beginning any treatment.

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