Your brain’s midlife crisis

Fight forgetting. A change in lifestyle may help to protect your brain from middle age memory problems.

It seems to be a catch-all phrase: “Forget about it.”

Well, no problem there. Where are the car keys? Or for that matter, the parked car? That wonderful book you read last week, what was it called again? You know you walked into the kitchen for a reason, but what was it? All forgotten, at least momentarily.

Like the need for reading glasses, sudden blanking or forgetfulness often strikes otherwise high-functioning people in their forties and fifties (and yes, sometimes as early as their mid-thirties; it is thought memory loss actually begins in the 20s).

Memory lapses, such as suddenly blocking a neighbour’s or colleague’s name or forgetting a social engagement, are not only embarrassing, but can cause considerable anxiety. Once you start having trouble concentrating or remembering things, is this a portent of even worse things to come, i.e. Alzheimer’s disease?

Not necessarily, according to experts. Increasingly, scientists are finding that for the most part, memory problems encountered in midlife may not be predictive of the progressive degeneration that leads to dementia. Instead, the loss of mental acuity may simply reflect the symptoms of an aging brain.

The brain, as it ages, may gradually lose the material it needs to for one region to communicate effectively with another, according to a study at Harvard University. The study, published in Neuron, suggests this slowly undermines sophisticated “higher” cognitive functions such as memory and learning.

Normal, but not acceptable
Just because a certain amount of age-related forgetfulness may be ‘normal’, is it acceptable, or perhaps more importantly, inevitable?

Not by a long shot according to Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, author of Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife (HarperCollins).

“Two hundred years ago, if we aged ‘normally’ that is, according to our biological destiny forgetfulness wouldn’t be an issue at forty-five or fifty: Most of us would be in our graves,” she writes. “Medicine constantly redefines what is normal in terms of physiological aging.

“We get new knees and new hips. We take drugs to control our blood pressure. We don’t give up reading when our fading vision demands we hold a newspaper at arm’s length. Instead we build ourselves an arsenal of reading glasses and scatter them all over the house and office, in case we forget where they are.”

Fighting forgetfulness
So what sort of arsenal can we build up to fight forgetfulness?

It’s a question that Ramin, a 40-something veteran journalist who was herself experiencing memory problems, sought to answer. Over the course of a three year quest for a more agile brain, she underwent 10 “interventions” meant to enhance her cognitive function. These interventions, detailed in her book, involved consultations with top experts in the fields of sleep, stress, traumatic brain injury, hormones, genetics and dementia, as well as specialists in nutrition, cognitive psychology and the growing field of drug-based cognitive enhancement.