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"That's simply a common occurrence of forgetting": the distinction between memory decline and dementia - and ways to safeguard your brain.

“That’s simply a common occurrence of forgetting”: the distinction between memory decline and dementia – and ways to safeguard your brain.


Isn’t it ironic? Right when we begin to think about our future health and death, especially after seeing our older family members battle illnesses like dementia, our tasks and obligations become overwhelming and we feel like we’re losing our cognitive abilities. The names of people and animals we care about become jumbled in our minds. We struggle to find our keys. We have to set reminders for all our appointments.

However, it is difficult to determine if this troublesome inconsistency is a result of declining cognitive abilities due to aging, early indicators of our own potential dementia, or simply a challenging phase that we will eventually overcome. It could even be considered as normal forgetfulness, as we are not machines.

Neurologist Richard Restak, who is 82 years old, has written a new book titled “How to Prevent Dementia: An Expert’s Guide to Long-Term Brain Health.” In it, he suggests that memory lapses may be caused by everyday stress rather than something more serious. According to Restak, stress can impair normal brain function and lead to difficulties with memory and recalling names.

Of course, it’s impossible to completely avoid stressful things, but one you can choose to swerve, he says, is worrying that you’re getting Alzheimer’s because of mild forgetfulness: “There are examples of people coming out of shopping malls and being unable to remember where they parked the car. Well, that’s just normal forgetting.”

A concerning scenario, according to Restak, would be if you exit the mall and cannot recall if you drove there, took a bus, or were dropped off by someone else.

Restak is clearly still mentally sharp: as well as writing books, he is a clinical professor at George Washington University in Washington DC. But he calmly accepts a mild decline in his abilities that comes with age. He recalls a book tour dinner many years ago in which he was introduced to a dozen new people. “I had no trouble at all remembering the names,” he says. “I’m not sure I could do that today.”

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According to Restak, difficulties with remembering names can be easily resolved. He explains that memory is based on visual images rather than words. For example, if I associate your name, Amy Fleming, with a picture of you engulfed in flames, the next time I see you, your name will come to mind.

Paying attention is a key factor in memory, rather than cognitive impairments. Using Restak’s comparison of a mall, if you are preoccupied with something more captivating than parking instructions upon arrival, you will not notice the seemingly unimportant parking area and therefore will not form a memory of it. It is more challenging to focus on things that do not stimulate us.

According to Linda Clare, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Exeter, the signs of a deteriorating memory due to dementia are much more noticeable. She explains, “There is a significant gap in memory that should not be there.” She shares her own personal experience of telling her mother about a big move and finding a house, only to have her mother completely forget the conversation the next morning. This confirmed for Clare that this was not just normal forgetfulness.

Clare remembers a different instance where a man entered a car and couldn’t recall the purpose of the controls. She acknowledges that these pivotal moments can lead someone to seek medical help. However, she admits that it is difficult to pinpoint exact indicators, as there are other factors besides dementia that can result in temporary lapses, such as infections, imbalances, strokes, and psychological issues.

If you encounter a sudden loss of memory or unusual cognitive changes, the typical course of action would be to seek a referral from your GP for a visit to a memory clinic.

Clare urges individuals to seek medical attention if they experience a decline in cognitive abilities. This is important not only because underlying health issues, like cardiovascular disease, can be identified and managed, but also because medication can potentially slow the progression of dementia if started early.

Let’s backtrack for a moment: if you’re feeling anxious about aging and unable to recall the actor in the movie you just watched, it would be beneficial to channel this mental effort towards productive measures. One option is to begin by acquiring new techniques for handling stress. “By reducing stress, cognitive performance will enhance,” suggests Restak.

Clare recommends breaking the harmful pattern of stressing about your well-being by prioritizing self-care. She acknowledges that it may not always be simple, as responsibilities cannot be ignored. However, she suggests finding ways to incorporate small acts, such as getting more rest or having someone support you for an hour or two, to maintain your well-being. These small actions are valuable and worth pursuing.

Alternatively, having a mentally challenging occupation can have positive effects by keeping the mind sharp and resilient, potentially reducing the risk of developing dementia. According to Clare, engaging in activities that stimulate mental function is beneficial and complex tasks can serve as a safeguard.

Having a job that requires a lot of mental effort is not necessary for maintaining brain health. According to Restak, the key concept for preventing dementia is “cognitive reserve”, which can be strengthened like a muscle. He explains that the brain is adaptable throughout life and cognitive reserve can be developed starting from childhood and at any point during the following 70 years.

While regularly exercising your brain does not guarantee prevention of dementia, it can potentially prolong your functional abilities if you do develop the disease. According to Restak, a helpful tip is to discover a subject that deeply intrigues you and immerse yourself in it like a “passionate obsession,” continuously expanding your knowledge through books and films to keep your mind sharp.

According to him, engaging your brain in new activities helps create fresh connections within the brain. This applies to acquiring new languages, musical abilities, and also highlights the importance of staying updated with new technology instead of relying on others to do it for you.

Engaging in reading fiction is a beneficial way to enhance cognitive reserve. According to Restak, novels require a higher level of cognitive abilities compared to nonfiction books, which can be read out of order. With a novel, one must remember the previous events, keep track of characters, and analyze both the literal and implied meanings while utilizing imagination.

Books and brain teasers rely on working memory. According to the speaker, having a high working memory is linked to one’s IQ. A strong working memory can prevent dementia.

He recommends certain exercises (refer to panel) that would be challenging for anyone, according to him. Dementia is medically defined as a significant decline in memory, language, problem-solving, and other cognitive skills that affects daily functioning.

According to Restak, having a sufficient amount of working memory to memorize and recall the names of all the prime ministers since World War II is a clear indication that one does not have dementia. However, if one is not interested in politics, a similar exercise of listing their football team members by position or alphabetically would serve the same purpose.

In addition to decreasing stress and maintaining cognitive flexibility, sleep, especially naps, can benefit your memory. According to Restak, laboratory experiments have shown that naps help reinforce information that has already been learned. When we initially learn something, it is stored in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for creating new memories. During a nap, the hippocampus becomes active in the same way as when we first learned the information. This process is known as neural replay.

As a person gets older, sleep issues tend to become more common. According to Restak, taking a nap during the day can be beneficial in managing your sleep at night.

None of this advice comes with guarantees. “You can’t take a specific person and predict whether or not they’re going to get Alzheimer’s on the basis of their lifestyle,” says Restak. “A high percentage of it is genetic, but these steps will lower the odds.”

He suggests that avoiding excessive drinking is another important factor. While alcohol is acknowledged as harmful, it is still a part of daily life. If having one drink per day improves your well-being, then it may be acceptable. However, it is important to also prioritize other methods of preventing dementia such as regular physical activity and maintaining a nutritious diet.

More and more evidence supports the importance of taking care of your heart and hearing, as well as maintaining social connections.

Fortunately, it is never too late to enhance your cognitive reserve or improve your overall health. According to Clare, making positive lifestyle changes at any point can have a significant impact. Even starting to exercise during retirement can bring benefits. It is important to remember that we are never beyond help.

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List all of the prime ministers of the United Kingdom, starting from Winston Churchill up to the current day. Then, reverse the list and arrange it alphabetically, grouping by political party.

If you are not interested in politics, please provide a list of all the members on your preferred football team (or renowned teams from the past, like the England 1966 or France 1998 World Cup champions) categorized by their position or in alphabetical order.

Navigate through the grocery store without consulting your shopping list until you finish.

Solve challenging puzzles like Wordle and Sudoku. According to Restak, it can be beneficial to engage in activities that require you to manipulate information in your mind.

Source: theguardian.com