When memory lapses are (and aren’t) cause for concern

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I was in the supermarket recently when a woman came running toward me. “Jancee!” she said. “How are you?”

I smiled. She looked familiar, but what was her name? As she chatted, I silently recited the alphabet, hoping it would jog my memory. Please don’t let her name be Zoe, I thought; I can’t fake this for much longer.

It’s natural to wonder whether our memory is getting worse as we age — and those concerns aren’t unreasonable: Some 5.8 million Americans live with dementia, which is marked by a significant loss of cognitive functions. And the biggest risk factor for dementia is aging.

But some age-related memory lapses aren’t cause for concern. I spoke with four experts about the ways memory shifts, how we can remember a bit more, and when to discuss forgetfulness with a doctor.

Temporarily blanking on names and misplacing items is normal.

I asked Dr. Mario Mendez, director of behavioral neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, about age-related memory problems, but he corrected my choice of words: “I’d say ‘memory changes,’” he said. “And that does not translate necessarily into a problem.”

In a study of nearly 50,000 people, researchers found that short-term memory peaks around age 25. But starting in your 50s, Mendez said, the area of the brain in charge of memory retrieval is less efficient. Still, “being less efficient is different from impairment,” he said. So if you’re struggling to remember “that movie starring that guy,” the memory is often there, Mendez said; it just takes longer to surface. “And then lo and behold, five minutes later, you remember,” he said.

Forgetting your car keys or someone’s name is often seen as a brain malfunction, but it’s not, said Dr. Ronald Davis, professor of neuroscience at the Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology. We are inundated with so much information, said Davis, and the brain has to manage memories. “Forgetting is a normal part of one’s brain function,” he said.

There are ways to keep your memory relatively sharp.

Just because memory changes are normal, it doesn’t mean that you can’t try to improve your memory, said Dr. Arman Fesharaki-Zadeh, an assistant professor of neurology and psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. Instead of using recall-enhancing tricks (like the one I tried in the supermarket), a few lifestyle changes may help.

First, Fesharaki-Zadeh said, limit multitasking. It’s not good for your brain health in general, but as we get older, our capacity to multitask “typically diminishes,” he said.

Be mindful of stress, which has a direct influence on memory, Fesharaki-Zadeh said. Several studies link sleep loss to memory deficits, he added, so do your best to get adequate rest. Diet can also affect memory. Eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats has been shown to correlate with better cognition.

Finally, Fesharaki-Zadeh said, a half-hour of daily cardiovascular exercise can generate new neurons in the hippocampal area of the brain, which is critical for memory consolidation.

Sometimes a doctor’s visit is in order.

There are circumstances when you should check with your doctor, Fesharaki-Zadeh said. If someone who knows you well points out that your forgetfulness has changed significantly, it might be a sign of something more serious. Early signs of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, include losing the ability to retrace steps, problems judging distances and increasingly needing memory aids like notes or phone alerts.

If you feel like memory loss is disrupting your daily life, make an appointment with a doctor, said Scott Small, a professor of neurology at Columbia and author of “Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering.” A good clinician, he explained, can explore potential causes for memory problems whether it’s a disease or other factors, such as certain painkillers or sleeping aids.

After talking to the brain experts, I felt reassured. And my friend’s name, as it turned out, was Erica — so I had to fake recognition for only a few seconds.

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