Here's a phenomenon Judy Ashby observes when she runs her Alzheimer's Association booth at health fairs around Utah: Middle-aged women tend to keep their distance and middle-aged men will make a nervous joke. "I was going to ask you a question," they'll say to Ashby, sidling up to her booth, "but now I can't remember what it is."
Baby boomers whose senior members suddenly find themselves on the cusp of old age are uneasy about the prospect of losing their memories, says Ashby. Meanwhile, the dietary supplement industry has jumped in to provide shelves full of antidotes with names like "Brain and Memory
Tonic," and publishers have found a lucrative market with can-do books like "Total Memory Workout."
"They come in here and think they have memory loss," says Salt Lake City physician Fred Gottlieb about his patients in their 40s and 50s. "They'll forget where they put their car keys and think they have dementia." (Of course baby boomers tend to be neurotic anyway, adds Gottlieb, a boomer himself. "They take every ache and pain and every minor failing as a sign of degenerative disease or death.") The first time a boomer forgets his best friend's name, Gottlieb adds, doesn't mean it's time for a brain scan.
Doctors and researchers point out that forgetting where you've put your glasses is not a sign of dementia, but that "if you don't remember you wear glasses, that's when you have problems," as University of Utah professor Raymond Kesner says. Kesner studies the neurobiology of learning and memory.
People typically become more forgetful as they age, perhaps because of cell loss in regions like the parietal cortex, the area that helps you remember the word "cortex" instead of having your mind go blank. Free radical damage may cause some of that cell loss, says Kesner. The rest of the loss might just be chalked up to the passage of time but that doesn't mean a person can't keep the loss at bay.
The national Alzheimer's Association has started a campaign (at www.alz.org) called "Maintain Your Brain," aimed at the very boomers who are worried (and who, coincidentally, might donate money). The association notes that the disease may be genetic and eventually inevitable for many people (currently, 50 percent of people who reach age 85 have diagnosed Alzheimer's, according to the association) but that certain life choices can delay its appearance.
Eating fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants seems to help, as does engaging in mind-stimulating activities like word puzzles or learning a new language. There is evidence, says Kesner, that brain stimulation helps the brain grow more synapses and dendrites, the information-receiving parts of neurons. Physical activity also helps to keep blood flow to the brain and to keep weight down. High weight is associated with Alzheimer's and other dementias caused by conditions such as ministrokes.
A study of 1,500 adults, according to the Alzheimer's Association, found that those who were obese in middle age were twice as likely to develop dementia later in life; and those who also had high cholesterol and high blood pressure had six times the risk of dementia.
Don't forget, says Kesner, that our ability to remember isn't perfect, no matter what our age. We get distracted, our minds are full of too much information, we can't remember details. "We ultimately reconstruct most of what we remember," he says.
"If you think about the amount of information that could potentially be stored in a lifetime," he adds, "we would clutter up our neurons. Maybe forgetting is a way to allow you to store what's really important. The fact that you had a granola bar this morning for breakfast, and a bagel the day before, it's ultimately not that important."
Memory loss in old age isn't inevitable, argues Salt Lake naturopath Todd Cameron, and in fact is often a result of bad eating habits or something as simple as not drinking enough water. What is sometimes called senile dementia "a lot of time is a chronic state of dehydration," Cameron says.
Depression, too, "can look like dementia," says Gottlieb, and some prescription medicines can also affect memory. Stress, too, can increase forgetfulness.
A study published last week in the Journal of Neuroscience hints that fish oil might protect against Alzheimer's. In the study, elderly mice with genes linked to an Alzheimer's-like brain condition were found to respond to diets rich in DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid. Mice with diets high in DHA had 40 percent less brain plaque, and a 70 percent drop in a building block of plaque. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in foods such as walnuts, flax seeds and cold-water fish like salmon, and in fish oil supplements.
As for other supplements, the ones with hopeful names like "Deep Thought" and "Brain Pep" so far, says Kesner, no herbs have proved to definitely improve memory. Even the highly touted gingko biloba, he says, "doesn't make much difference."
Some 150 compounds are currently being tested by pharmaceutical companies as a memory aid for Alzheimer's patients. Alzheimer's drugs already on the market only help about 30 to 40 percent of patients, says Ashby. Even those don't stop the disease, only slow its progress and even then seem to work by making patients more attentive rather than improving memory, says Kesner.The drugs do not improve the memories of boomers who are simply getting more forgetful. But seeing all the ads for the drugs on TV probably makes them more anxious that they are already slipping into dementia.