Wait. What Did I Come Into This Room for Again?
You’re not alone if you can’t retrieve familiar words or your phone, glasses or keys. The good news: You’ve got the power to sharpen your memory with simple habits.
One morning when I arrived at work, I unzipped my wallet and realized I didn’t have my work ID. Mystified, I checked every inch of my wallet, my desk at work, my bureau at home, my purse and all of the pockets in my work bag. It was just gone. I waited a couple of weeks just in case it showed up, and eventually it did, in the pocket of a blazer I had slipped it in. Relieved, I tucked the ID safely into one of the slots of my wallet to make sure I would be able to find it again.
We hate the term “senior moments.” But few of us are strangers to midlife memory lapses. In those moments of chuckling at ourselves when we finally find our keys or sunglasses wherever we left them, our next reaction may be to realize forgetfulness seems to happen more frequently as we get older. When do those blanks we may be drawing more often become a problem? And what can we do to avoid the frantic search for misplaced items or a name on the tip of our tongue?
Many of the common instances of brain fog are normal, says Lisa Barnes, Ph.D., a cognitive neuropsychologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “If you have a lot going on in your life, you may be more likely to forget things,” she notes. “You might forget an appointment or birthday because you have so much on your plate.”
Stress, particularly chronic stress, may also be why you’re forgetting bills or appointments, says Dr. Barnes. If, however, memory loss starts to interfere with your daily functioning and ability to remain independent, that’s when you need to see your doctor. Brain fog can be caused or exacerbated by a number of factors, including the buildup of abnormal proteins in the brain occurring with age, chronic diseases like diabetes or high blood pressure, and even genetics.
Most often, though, it’s due to expected changes in the brain. “It’s age-related, but it’s starting decades before you actually show any clinical symptoms, I would say maybe as early as age 30 or 40,” Dr. Barnes adds.
But you can take steps to reduce your risk of senior moments and keep your brain sharp.
Get a checkup. Your doctor can screen you for health issues that could impact your memory, such as vitamin deficiencies, medication interactions or conditions like hypothyroidism, says Pamela Price, director of the Brain Health Center for African Americans at The Balm In Gilead.
Get enough shut-eye. “Like the rest of our body wants to heal and repair, our brain needs that as well,” Price says. “When you are not getting enough adequate sleep, that speeds up the aging process of your brain.” Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep a night.
Hydrate. “Our brain is very vascular,” Price says. Drinking enough H2O keeps the circulation flowing so our brain cells can continue to communicate the way they are supposed to.
Get moving. People who are more physically active tend to have a lower risk of memory issues, Dr. Barnes says, probably because exercise benefits the heart and blood flow in the brain. Walking consistently and frequently will do.
Stay mentally active. Like our bodies, our brains need exercise. People who learn new skills like languages and stay engaged in activities have a lower risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Price notes.
Tune in to all your senses. When trying something new, like a dish or a class, make a point of noting how things look, smell, sound, feel and taste. Research shows that the sensory association helps tap into memory.
Eat healthfully. Make sure your diet is rich in fruits and vegetables and limited in saturated fats and processed foods. “The good stuff, the leafy greens, the berries, that’s been shown to [have] protective factors,” Dr. Barnes says.
Reduce alcohol. Rates of drinking rose during COVID-19 isolation. But “alcohol is related to memory and cognitive functioning,” Price says. So cut down on the amount and frequency of imbibing.
Stay social. “People who report being more socially engaged, whether that’s volunteering, being in clubs or [taking part in] church activities, also tend to be protected,” Dr. Barnes says.