Ask The Doctor

Healthy Living Is Key to Better Memory

I have been getting forgetful lately. This past week, I went to the supermarket and couldn’t remember what I was supposed to buy for a few minutes. I sometimes forget my neighbor’s name. It doesn’t interfere with my life that much, but it’s annoying.  
I went to my doctor who told me I don’t have Alzheimer’s disease. While I am happy to hear this, what can I do to improve my memory? I am 67 years old and otherwise in good health.  
Thanks for your help, and I am looking forward to the new season of Ask the Doctor.
Memory Problems in Maspeth
Dear Memory Problems,
You are not alone. I was just speaking about this topic with my good friend Andrea Grasso from New York Methodist Hospital. 
Most people, as they age, have simple lapses of memory in which they forget names or where they left items, such as keys. It becomes serious when it interferes with someone’s lifestyle.  
I will discuss some well proven methods and some unproven methods to better memory. Anxiety and worrying only worsen the situation. The most important thing is to relax and not become overly concerned. 
The best tip for good memory is to keep the body healthy. Whatever you do to keep the heart healthy will keep the brain healthy. Getting plenty of exercise and adequate sleep, eating fruit and vegetables and not smoking are keys to maintaining a good memory. In terms of physical exercise, taking a brisk, half-hour walk, three times a week will do the trick.  
Staying mentally active by learning a new instrument, a new language or even eating breakfast with your opposite hand can improve and maintain memory. It is important to socialize, especially if you live alone. This interaction wards off depression and stress, both of which contribute to memory loss.  
Get organized. Keeping a to-do list for the day is helpful and can keep you on the right track (at any age). Try not to think of various problems at one time. Focus on the problem at hand. 
Caffeine can improve mental and memory performance. It stimulates the region of the brain that causes us to become aroused or alert. Studies show that regular coffee drinkers have better memories than non-coffee drinkers. 
An unusual aid is to chew gum. This increases activity in the area of brain that deals with memory and makes it more effective in the memory process.
An herbal medication known as gingko biloba has been used to enhance memory for thousands of years. It works by cleaning out harmful substances known as free radicals, which are thought to damage brain cells.  
Eating oily fish may help improve memory. The omega-3 fatty acids boost age-related memory and enhance mood. Sardines are another fish that contain chemicals to boost memory.
As far as vitamins, vitamin B helps to provide protection against the harmful free radicals. Vitamins may help to sharpen senses and boost memory.  
A small (but interesting) study in 2013 showed that participants who squeeze their right fist during learning and their left fist during memory recall did better than control groups. 
It is important to maintain normal weight – putting on weight is associated with memory problems. Lose some weight, and memory function is likely to improve.   
While it can look like doodlers are paying less attention than non-doodlers, in reality the act of drawing is helpful to keep the brain active and improve memory. It keeps the memory part of the brain stimulated.
Finally, go for a walk. One study found that older people who walked six miles weekly had a greater amount of brain memory tissue nine years later than those who were sedentary.  
The good news is that most cases of memory loss are age-related, not Alzheimer’s disease. With a proper approach, memory loss can be stabilized and sometimes reversed. Speak with your doctor before taking any supplements or starting an exercise regimen.
I am also excited about the start of our 20th Ask the Doctor season. Be sure to tune in March 4 at 8 p.m.
Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Ch. 97 Time Warner and Ch. 30 Cablevision.