We sometimes joke about memory lapses being "senior moments," but medications may be an overlooked culprit. For example, research done at the University of Montreal in Canada examined 68 trials of benzodiazepines such as Xanax (prescribed for anxiety and insomnia) and found that they consistently impair memory and concentration. Antihistamines and sleeping pills, such as Ambien, Lunesta, and Sonata, can also reduce mental capacity (see "Top 10 Memory Robbing Drugs," right).
Nine out of 10 people age 65 or older take at least one prescription drug, and many take a combination. Consequently, it makes sense to have a pharmacist evaluate your medication regimen if memory, concentration, or other mental tasks become problematic.
Here are six natural ways to enhance your memory and brain function, no matter your age or health situation.
Eat for Better Memory. The wrong foods can rob mental function. David Perlmutter, MD, author of Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar-Your Brain's Silent Killers, has identified sugar, starch, and gluten as contributors to dementia, whereas good fats protect against it. These include grass-fed beef, eggs, fish and fish oil supplements, avocado, nuts, coconut oil, and olive oil. B vitamins, especially B12, are also necessary for optimum mental function, and can be taken in a B complex, multivitamin, or single-supplement form. Curcumin, which comes from the spice turmeric, is also known to correlate with very low incidence of Alzheimer's disease. Introduce more turmeric to meals and/or supplement with curcumin.
Try Phosphatidylserine (PS): A waxy substance technically called a "phospholipid," PS is a key building block of healthy cell membranes. Studies of more than 1,000 people show that it can help relieve ADHD and memory problems in children, age-related memory loss later in life, and symptoms of diagnosed Alzheimer's or other dementia. The usual dosage is 100 mg, two or three times daily for adults, and twice daily for children. PS is sometimes combined with omega-3 supplements.
Seek Out Sage. Research shows that taking an extract of sage boosts memory and mental performance. One study, published in Psychopharmacology, found that 330 mg of a sage extract daily was effective in a group of healthy people over the age of 65. Another study, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), found that in healthy people, 15 microliters of a sage essential oil improved mental function within an hour. Since strengths of different products vary, follow label directions.
Discover Sensoril. This supplement is a proprietary form of ashwagandha, a traditional Ayurvedic herb used to enhance memory and mental function, slow down aging, and protect against disease. Studies have shown that it helps to alleviate memory problems in children and older people, as well as reduce stress. And, a study of 20 healthy young men, published in Pharmacognosy Research, found that 500 mg of Sensoril, taken twice daily for 15 days, enhanced mental performance.
Focus on the Healthy Fat DHA. One of the key omega-3 fats found in fish oil and algae, DHA is known to be essential for infants' and children's normal brain development, and for maintaining brain health throughout life. And, it improves memory. A 6-month study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, tested 1.6 grams (1,600 mg) of DHA daily against a placebo, among 176 healthy people between the ages of 18 and 45. Their diets, like those of most Americans, were low in DHA. Both men and women taking the supplement experienced improvements in memory.
Top 10 Memory-Robbing Drugs
AARP identified these as widely used drugs that can impair memory and other mental functions. Not all drugs in each category have the same side effects, and a pharmacist can give you detailed information on a specific drug. Although most are prescription drugs, some are also available over the counter.
- Benzodiazepines for anxiety (also used for insomnia)
- Statins to lower cholesterol
- Anti-seizure drugs
- Tricyclic antidepressants
- Narcotics for pain
- Parkinson's drugs (also used for restless leg syndrome)
- Beta-blockers for hypertension (also used for chest pain, migraines, abnormal heart rhythm, and in eye drops for glaucoma)
- Sleeping aids (also used for anxiety)
- Incontinence drugs
- Antihistamines (also used for itching and insomnia)
A Mushroom Worth Remembering
Used for centuries throughout Asia as an immune-stimulating tonic, the uniquely beautiful cascading mushroom known as lion's mane may also stimulate your brain. Recent studies of the mushroom have discovered specific compounds called erinacines that enhance cognition and memory by speeding myelination and by enhancing the production of Nerve Growth Factor. Nerve Growth Factor is a protein that plays a key role in the maintenance and regeneration of neurons.
Lion's mane also protects against brain cell death, which improves both mental clarity and memory. In one small trial published in Phytotherapy Research, researchers assigned 30 seniors with mild cognitive impairment to a daily dose of either lion's mane or a placebo. In cognitive tests administered periodically during the study, those taking the lion's mane showed significantly better brain function than those in the placebo group.
This brain-boosting fungus may even help those with Alzheimer's disease. During a recent pre-clinical study that appeared in the journal Biomedical Research, scientists examined the effects of lion's mane on brain function in an Alzheimer's model. The mushroom extract not only crossed the blood-brain barrier quickly, it halted the accumulation of beta-amyloid plaques. To get these benefits for yourself, look for a certified organic freeze-dried lion's mane supplement to ensure purity and effectiveness. -Kim Erickson
Mushroom WisdomAmyloban 3399 boasts an exclusive extract from Lion's Mane.
NOW FoodsRememBRAIN is a smart blend of PS, vitamin B12, and other mental-sharpening nutrients.
Ovega-3Omega-3s DHA + EPA features Life's DHA, a proprietary, algae-based form of DHA.
Herbalists often suggest sage, which means "to cure" in Latin, as a prevention therapy for Alzheimer's.
Vera Tweed has been writing about nutrition, fitness, and healthy living since 1997. She specializes in covering research and expert knowledge that empowers people to lead better lives. She is the author of numerous books, including Hormone Harmony and the User's Guide to Carnitine and Acetyl-L-Carnitine.