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. Memory lapses can occur at any age, especially with our nonstop, overcommitted lifestyles. But as baby boomers start passing their 60th birthday, many become concerned that their minds will start to deteriorate as their body begins to feel the aches and pains of aging.
Fortunately, most of the fleeting memory problems that we experience with age reflect normal changes in the structure and function of the brain. These changes can slow certain cognitive processes, making it a bit harder to learn new things quickly or screen out distractions that can interfere with memory and learning. Granted, these changes can be frustrating and may even seem far from benign when we need to learn new skills or juggle myriad responsibilities. But there’s usually nothing to worry about.
That’s not to say you should ignore these irksome symptoms. Just as more and more Boomers are working hard to keep their bodies fit, there is growing interest in ways to keep their minds fit too. Think of it as the Boomer’s brain-fitness revolution—and it’s a great way to enhance your memory and fortify your mental acuity.
What Causes Senior Brain Fade?
It’s no secret that lifestyle choices can have a huge impact on your health as you age. That holds true for your memory and cognitive function, too. A growing number of studies are beginning to link a pro-inflammatory diet high in processed food and refined sugar to a higher incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Over time, a diet packed with these types of food can reduce the flexibility of synapses and increase the vulnerability of brain cells to free-radical damage. Foods high on the glycemic index (GI), which measures the effect carbohydrates have on blood sugar levels, can also impact brain function. A growing number of clinical trials suggest that eating a low-GI diet instead of a high-GI diet improves cognitive performance.
A sedentary lifestyle can also set you up for age-related memory loss. With regular exercise, the body builds up its levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and the brain’s nerve cells start to branch out, join together and communicate with each other in new ways. Brains with more BDNF have a greater capacity for knowledge. On the other hand, a brain that’s low on BDNF shuts itself off to new information.
Smoking or frequent exposure to second-hand smoke can also interfere with the way the brain works. Middle-aged smokers are more prone to memory problems than their non-smoking peers, a recent French study suggests. For the study, the researchers asked more than 5,000 middle-aged British civil servants about their smoking habits in 1999 and again in 2004. When the participants were tested for cognitive function, the researchers found that the smokers ranked in the lowest 20 percent of test scores compared to those who had never smoked. The findings were much more promising among the participants who had quit smoking. The ex-smokers were 30 percent less likely to have poor vocabulary and low verbal frequency scores than current smokers.
Fortunately, these are all risk factors that you can control. Adopting an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense diet, as well as getting plenty of exercise and doing what you can to avoid cigarette smoke can truly be a smart move.
Botanicals for a Better Brain
Sharpening your mental powers requires giving your brain what it needs to fire on all cylinders. Fortunately, Mother Nature has provided the following herbs that can effectively increase antioxidant levels, reduce inflammation, enhance communication between brain cells, and more!
Curcumin is known for its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Derived from turmeric—the rhizome of the Curcuma longa plant, curcumin has garnered a lot of buzz over the past few years for its ability to protect the brain. During a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 60 seniors that appeared in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, investigators gave the participants either a single one-time dose or a daily dose of curcumin for four weeks. For those in the acute group, curcumin improved attention and working memory just one hour after taking the supplement compared to a placebo. Those taking the daily dose experienced even better results in long-term working memory and mood.
If you are at risk of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, preliminary studies suggest that taking supplemental curcumin may improve cognition in those with the disease. One way it may do this is by improving communication in the brain by increasing BDNF levels and other signaling pathways. But not all supplements can deliver these results since curcumin is notoriously difficult for the body to absorb. To maximize your supplement’s benefits, look for a standardized and bioavailable form of curcumin such as BCM-95, a proprietary formula that combines curcumin with turmeric essential oil.
Rosemary has a well-earned reputation as a memory enhancer in traditional herbal medicine. In a 2016 study conducted by British researchers at Northumbria University’s Department of Psychology, 150 healthy people aged 65 and over were placed in rooms which had been scented with rosemary and lavender essential oils, or a control room which had no scent. They were asked to undertake tests that assessed their ability to remember to do something at a given time, such as taking medication. Those who had been in the rosemary-scented room displayed significantly enhanced prospective memory, with test scores 15 percent higher than those who had been in the room with no aroma. They were also more alert.
Earlier findings during a study of 70-somethings that appeared in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers found that a low dose of supplemental rosemary also enhanced the speed of memory. Speed of memory is a great predictor of cognitive function as we age.
Spanish sage is often combined with rosemary to enhance memory in older adults. But when the researchers at Northumbria University tested the herb’s solo impact on young adults, they saw an uptick in short-term memory. The volunteers were given either different doses of sage (50, 100, or 150 microl of the standardized essential oil) or a placebo. Even the lowest dose significantly improved word recall, suggesting that sage—on its own—can improve immediate memory and cognition at any age.
Combined with a brain-healthy lifestyle, these herbs not only protect your noggin, they can actually improve the brain you’ve got. Here’s to staying sharp for a lifetime!