Maybe you’ve gone into the kitchen and don't remember why. Or you can’t recall a familiar name during a conversation. You may have even missed an appointment because it slipped your mind. These types of memory lapses can occur at any age, but we tend to get more upset by them as we get older because we fear they’re a sign of dementia or loss of mental acuity.
Luckily, these concerns are usually nothing to worry about. In fact, most fleeting memory problems simply reflect normal changes in the structure and function of the brain as we age. That’s not to say you should ignore these irksome symptoms. The strategies you’ll find below can help you stay mentally fit, no matter your age. What’s more, they’re safe, natural, and easy to work into your daily routine.
The Aging Brain
Until recently, brain aging and memory loss were thought to occur because neurons died or stopped functioning. Neuro-scientists believed that you were born with a certain number of neurons and, as you got older, some of these neurons were lost. Today, science knows better. New research shows that dopamine controls the formation of new neurons deep in the center of the adult brain. Once born, they move to areas of the brain associated with higher brain function. Because of this regeneration, the normal aging process leaves most mental functions intact, and may even provide the brain with unique advantages that form the basis for wisdom.
Healthy Body, Healthy Brain
Even though you form new neurons throughout life, it doesn’t mean that your brain doesn’t change as you age. Over the years, brain weight and volume decrease. In fact, between age 20 and age 90, the brain loses 5–10 percent of its weight. But accumulating birthdays isn’t the only reason your brain becomes smaller. Your lifestyle matters, too. According to data collected on more than 1,300 middle-aged people who took part in the Framington Offspring Cohort Study, chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, and bad habits, such as smoking, can accelerate brain shrinkage.
Harmful habits can also trigger other changes. For instance, poor diet and lack of exercise can contribute to cardiovascular disease that reduces blood flow to the brain. This causes the brain to utilize oxygen and protein less efficiently.
In addition, the aging brain loses some ability to protect itself against the inflammation and free radical damage generated by harmful habits. In one study of 447 seniors, those with higher levels of C-reactive protein (CRP, a marker of low-grade, systemic inflammation), had worse performance scores in tests that measured executive function than those with low to moderate CRP levels. But making healthy changes now may help protect your brain from future harm.
The Dark Cloud of Alzheimer’s
An unhealthy lifestyle may also increase your chances of developing dementia, including the most common and feared form of dementia—Alzheimer’s disease. Since the symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s can include forgetfulness, trouble focusing, and poor decision-making, many of us start to worry every time we forget where we left our car keys. Could this be a sign of Alzheimer’s?
One of the more disturbing aspects of Alzheimer’s disease is that there is no cure. In fact, scientists haven’t even settled on why some people develop it. One school of thought revolves around the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. These clumps of protein may damage and destroy brain cells by interfering with cell-to-cell communication.
Another hypothesis is the theory of tangles, which is often talked about among neuroscientists in the same breath as plaques. Your brain cells depend on a complicated system that transports nutrients throughout the brain. This system requires the normal structure and functioning of a protein called tau. Autopsies of Alzheimer’s patients show that threads of tau are twisted into tangles that prevent the transport of vital nutrients. This eventually leads to the death of brain cells.
More recently, researchers have suggested that inflammation may start a chain reaction that, over time, contributes to Alzheimer’s disease. When cells in the brain are disrupted by inflammation, amyloid proteins begin to act chaotically. This chaos may turn amyloid into beta-amyloid plaques. Inflammation may also be the culprit that causes tau protein fibers to start tangling.
Sharpening your mental powers requires giving your brain what it needs to fire on all cylinders. Fortunately, Mother Nature has provided a variety of herbs and nutrients that can increase blood flow and antioxidant levels in the brain while protecting it from inflammation. Here are some of the most effective.
Acetyl-L-Carnitine: This amino acid provides the brain with much needed power by preserving mitochondria—tiny energy factories found deep within all cells, including brain cells. It also improves blood flow, protects against toxins, and helps transport fatty acids between cells. Studies consistently show that acetyl-L-carnitine effectively treats mild cognitive impairment, and may even help those with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. One clinical trial of 334 Alzheimer’s patients at Stanford University School of Medicine found that this nutrient helps slow the progression of the disease, especially among the younger participants.
But people without cognitive problems or memory loss can benefit from acetyl-L-carnitine, too. During one recent study of 96 people over the age of 70, Italian researchers found that those taking acetyl-L-carnitine had less mental and physical fatigue. The supplement group also experienced a boost in cognition.
B vitamins help guard against age-related memory loss in a number of ways. For instance, vitamin B3, better known as niacin, fosters the growth of new blood vessels and neurons after a stroke. And vitamin B12 helps make and preserve myelin, the protective sheath that surrounds axons. It may also keep the brain from shrinking.
The B vitamins also work together to protect cognitive function. According to a placebo-controlled trial that was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, taking 400 mcg of folic acid plus 100 mcg of B12 improved delayed recall scores when taken for 24 months. Earlier studies show that combining folic acid with B6 and B12 also supports memory by moderating homocysteine—an amino acid found naturally in the body that, in high amounts, is considered a significant risk factor for both heart disease and dementia. Since this family of vitamins often works together, it’s best to take a B complex supplement that provides at least 50 mg of thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, and pyridoxine, as well as 400–800 mcg of folic acid and 1,000 mcg of vitamin B12.
Bacopa is a small white flower that grows wild throughout India. The saponins found in the herb are thought to repair damaged neurons in the brain. A study from the National College of Natural Medicine, in collaboration with researchers from Oregon Health and Science University, found that a relatively modest dose of bacopa taken daily for 12 weeks improved information recall and had the added benefit of reducing depression and anxiety. Other studies suggest that bacopa increases mental agility and alertness, improves memory and focus, and increases the ability to grasp new information and skills.
Ginkgo biloba has been taken as a memory enhancer for more than 30 years, and during that time a multitude of studies have shown that it is effective for improving both cognition and memory. Ginkgo boosts blood flow in the brain, destroys free radicals, and protects brain cells from premature death. One review of 29 double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials found that the long- term use of ginkgo improves selective attention, some executive processes, and long-term verbal and non-verbal memory—although recent studies have shown mixed results in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease
Look for a supplement containing 60 mg of extract that has been standardized to contain 6 percent terpene lactones and 24 percent flavone glycosides If you take coumadin or other blood thinning pharmaceutical medications be sure to consult with your physician before taking ginkgo products.
Magnesium: This mineral is essential for a healthy nervous system. Studies show that magnesium enhances the brain’s plasticity and increases the number of brain synapses that can be switched on. According to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, magnesium improves both learning and memory. In fact, their study, which appeared in the journal Neuron, found that extra magnesium increased memory recall by a whopping 56 percent, thanks in part to a 142 percent growth in synaptic ends. This boosted the speed of brain transmission by 160 percent. Earlier studies show that boosting your magnesium levels can improve both attention span and working recall.
The problem is that nearly half of all Americans are deficient in this vital mineral. To restore healthy magnesium levels, it’s wise to take a magnesium supplement every day. For the most benefit, look for a readily absorbable form of the mineral such as amino acid chelates.
Citicoline, technically known by the tongue-twisting moniker CDP-choline; cytidine 5’-diphosphocholine, is a building block of DNA found in every cell in the body. The highest concentrations, however, are found in the brain and liver. In the brain, citicoline targets the frontal lobe—the area responsible for problem solving, attention, and concentration—and works in a number of ways to boost brainpower. It helps replenish the phospholipids that create and maintain healthy brain cell membranes. It also raises the level of chemical messengers needed for all of those voluntary and involuntary actions we rely on every day. And studies show that it protects the brain from free radical damage.
Cognizin Citicoline is a propriety and highly absorbable form of citicoline specifically designed to support healthy brain function. You can find Cognizin as an ingredient in a few different supplements. The company has also developed “Cognizin Memory”—a free iPhone app that exercises the brain with a fun, yet challenging, mind game. Created to complement Cognizin’s brain-health benefits, this multi-player game lets you select your character and test your own memory skills or compete against another player.
Your Brain on Fat
For most of us, fat is a dirty word. But to your brain, the right fats are the stuff healthy minds are made of. In fact, the brain is 60 percent fat, or more specifically fatty acids. These fatty acids, also known as lipids, are among the most vital building blocks of a properly functioning brain. They are essential for healthy brain cell membranes and make up 70 percent of the protective myelin sheathing that insulates nerves, so it’s no surprise that low levels of these specialized fats have been linked to cognitive problems and memory loss. Here's a closer look at the most important fatty acids for your brain.
Fish Oil is an excellent source of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)— an omega-3 fatty acid that is highly concentrated in the gray matter of the brain. Gray matter is involved in muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions, and speech. DHA also helps make cell membranes more fluid and improves communication between brain cells. Without enough DHA, the messages sent between the brain cells can become garbled, which may affect mood, memory, attention, behavior, and concentration.
Numerous clinical trials have clearly shown the value of boosting DHA with supplemental fish oil. In one of these studies, scientists at the Rhode Island Hospital Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center in Providence found that people who supplemented with fish oil scored better on cognitive tests compared to non-users. Plus, those taking fish oil actually had bigger brains!
Fish oil appears to benefit the brain in other ways as well. Research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that DHA may also improve cognitive function and memory by suppressing inflammation and oxidative damage in the brain. In another study, Scottish investigators gathered data from people who had their IQs measured in 1947, and then again in 2000 and 2001. They also evaluated the participants’ diet, supplement use, and current plasma levels of omega-3s. The researchers found that those who took fish oil supplements not only had better cognitive function, their IQ scores were actually 13 percent higher than those who didn’t take the supplements.
Most doctors recommend 1–3 grams of high-quality, purified fish oil daily providing at least 450 mg—and up to 2,000 mg—of DHA.
Phosphatidylserine (PS) makes up part of every cell membrane in the body. It is most abundant in brain cells and allows nutrients and waste products to flow in and out of cells. A number of clinical trials have validated the ability of supplemental plant-derived PS to improve memory, learning, word recall, concentration, and mood in middle-aged and elderly subjects suffering from age-related cognitive dysfunction. In one study, 15 elderly volunteers were given 100 mg of PS three times daily for 12 weeks. Researchers, who measured cognitive function at the beginning, middle, and end of the trial, found that 13 of the volunteers experienced significant improvement six weeks into the trial—an effect that was still going strong by the end of the study.
4 Factors That Can Shrink Your Brain
Your Chemical Brain
The chemistry of the brain is incredibly complex. Currently, researchers have identified 50 neurotransmitters—and each of them is responsible for multiple tasks. Here are seven of the most common:
Stimulates muscles, including the muscles in your gastrointestinal tract. It’s also important for learning and memory, and plays a role in scheduling REM (dream) sleep. People with Alzheimer’s disease have been found to have a 90 percent loss of this critical neurotransmitter.
Controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and helps regulate movement and emotional responses. The loss of dopamine in certain parts of the brain causes the muscle rigidity typical of Parkinson’s disease.
Known as the body’s “feel good” brain chemical, endorphins are involved with pleasure. They also regulate pain and stress, modulate appetite, trigger the release of sex hormones, and enhance immunity.
Gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA):
Puts the brakes on the neurotransmitters that lead to anxiety. People who often
feel apprehensive may have low levels of GABA. It’s also involved in motor control and vision.
This is the most common neurotransmitter in the brain and is involved in most aspects of cognition, memory, and learning. It’s also important for cellular metabolism and can provide energy to the brain.
Important for attentiveness, emotions, sleeping, dreaming, and learning, this neurotransmitter also plays a role in mood disorders such as bipolar disorder.
Acts as a catalyst for a number of functions such as learning and memory. This brain chemical also regulates body temperature, mood, emotion, sleep, and appetite. Too little serotonin can lead to depression, problems with anger control, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Acetyl-L-Carnitine Vcaps (vegetarian) have 500 mg of CarniPure, a proprietary form of carnitine that is easy to absorb and assimilate.
Sharp Thought features Sharp-PS Gold, a proprietary complex that combines DHA with phosphatidylserine in a form your body easily recognizes.
|Nawgan Alertness Beverage contains Cognizin, a proprietary and easy-to-absorb form of citicoline. Choose from Red Berries, Mandarin Orange, Strawberry Kiwi, and Lemonade.|
|Redd Remedies Brain Awakening blends vitamin-C-rich amla, lion's mane mushroom (known to boost memory), and Magtein, magnesium that crosses the blood-brain barrier.|
|Tangut USA Memory Fortifier is a mix of research-backed herbs, including Ginkgo biloba, to support clarity, focus, short- and long-term memory, and overall brain health.|
Kim Erickson has been involved with the natural health and integrative health industry for more than 18 years. She heads up Better Nutrition's Healthy Living Guide booklet series and the co-author of Living Lessons: My journey of faith, love, and cutting-edge cancer therapy (AIM, 2010). Visit her online at kimericksoneditorial.com.