Becoming more forgetful worries many of us. Some of us believe that forgetting small things like where we left our keys, might lead to Alzheimer’s disease in the future. However, not everyone who has memory issues has Alzheimer’s. Healthy individuals can experience minor memory issues at any age, but as long as the memory changes are not excessive and persistent, they are not considered as signs of Alzheimer’s. Other factors that might contribute to memory issues include aging, psychological factors or other temporary causes such as sleep issues.
In this blog, we will talk about common causes of memory issues other than Alzheimer’s. Additionally, we provide advice about strategies to improve your memory.
As we age, so do our brains. The hippocampus, a part of the brain that continues to produce new neurons into adulthood, is crucial for memory and learning. However, as the brain ages, the ability of the hippocampus to produce new neurons gradually decreases, causing a decline in cognitive functions including memory, learning ability and spatial navigation. A brain study1 conducted by University of Oxford indicated that hippocampal volume rapidly shrinks in middle age, and that this is more pronounced in females than in males.
People might wonder if there is any way to prevent hippocampal shrinkage. Fortunately, emerging evidence has shown that physical exercise can boost hippocampal volume and enhance the brain’s ability to produce new neurons. Specifically, Dr. Erickson and his colleagues2 found that aerobic exercise training can increase the size of the anterior hippocampus, leading to improvements in memory.
2. Stress, anxiety, or depression
When our bodies respond to real or perceived danger, electrical activity in the brain increases and hormones called adrenaline and cortisol are released. When stress or anxiety are extreme or last longer than an acceptable threshold, memory loss might happen. This is due to depletion of the body’s resources caused by stress and anxiety. Aside from stress and anxiety, there is an association between depression and memory issues. Dr. Balash3 published a paper on Acta Neuroligica Scandinavica to investigate the relationship between subjective memory complaints and found that subclinical depression and anxiety are associated with subjective memory complaints in cognitively healthy elders. This shows that healthy individuals can experience memory issues if there are feelings of stress, anxiety or depression.
Here are some suggestions that might be helpful for overcoming stress, anxiety and depression:
- Psychotherapy. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) focuses on specific strategies for beating anxiety and depression. The path to healing frequently includes facing one’s concerns during treatment.
- Use relaxation techniques. Meditation, yoga, music and art therapy, breathing exercises and other forms of relaxation can help individuals reduce stress levels.
- Get social support. Talking with family members or friends can help decrease stress and anxiety. Research has shown that lack of social support may contribute to the onset and recurrence of depression.
- Too little and too much sleep
Both too little and too much sleep are not good for memory. A Harvard Study found that getting an “average” amount of sleep, 7 hours per night, can be beneficial for preserving memory in later life. People who consistently lack sleep are more likely to have health problems such as diabetes, hypertension, and depression. These issues all have the potential to reduce blood flow to the brain. Blood flow issues may interfere with the ability of brain cells to function properly since they require a lot of oxygen and sugar.
What about too much sleep? Oversleeping is often a sign that someone is experiencing poor sleep quality and can be related to mental health conditions such as depression. Additionally, oversleeping is associated with many of the same health issues as sleeping too little including metabolic problems and cognitive decline.
Some advice to get the right amount of sleep:
- Track your sleep. Use technology such as smartphones and watches to track your sleep.
- Use a sunlight alarm. Sunlight alarms work by gently lighting your bedroom and giving you visual stimulus that wakes you up naturally. Being exposed to light in the morning can increase alertness and support the maintenance of your body’s circadian cycles.
- Take a short and early nap. A brief nap may improve the quality of your overnight rest, but a lengthy afternoon nap may make it harder to fall asleep at night.
3. For More Information
- Nobis, L., Manohar, S. G., Smith, S. M., Alfaro-Almagro, F., Jenkinson, M., Mackay, C. E., & Husain, M. (2019). Hippocampal volume across age: Nomograms derived from over 19,700 people in UK Biobank. NeuroImage. Clinical, 23, 101904.
- Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., … & Kramer, A. F. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 108(7), 3017-3022.
- Balash, Y., Mordechovich, M., Shabtai, H., Giladi, N., Gurevich, T., & Korczyn, A. D. (2013). Subjective memory complaints in elders: depression, anxiety, or cognitive decline?. Acta Neurologica Scandinavica, 127(5), 344-350.