Finding yourself forgetful? Worried that maybe you’re experiencing the first signs of dementia or even Alzheimer’s? Relax. Most memory issues are surprisingly normal – and have common, easily addressed causes.
Research has shown that deep, or rapid eye movement (REM), sleep is essential for optimizing and consolidating memory. Not getting enough sleep or poor sleep caused by common conditions such as sleep apnea can lead to memory problems. Untreated sleep apnea is known to affect your spatial navigational memory, which includes being able to remember directions or where you put things like your keys. Getting a good night’s sleep is a simple first step in trying to improve your memory.
Dealing with major stress or anxiety can lead to problems with your attention and memory. This is particularly common for those who have to juggle multiple responsibilities at home and work. Stress increases your level of the hormone cortisone. A research study on over 1,200 people found that those whose cortisol levels stayed higher during memory recall found it more challenging to retrieve specific memories. Previous studies have also found that higher cortisol levels impairs the recall of episodic memories. Reducing your stress levels can bring your memory recall back to its normal strength.
Most people today are on one or more prescription medications. While many of these medicines significantly improve our quality of life, it’s important to always be aware of potential side effects. Unfortunately, some type of memory impairment is a common side effect of many drugs, from antianxiety meds and antidepressants to cholesterol-lowering medications and antihistamines. The more medicines you are taking, the more likely that these potential side effects will become noticeable. If you find yourself experiencing memory problems, you should reviewing the potential side effects of each medication you take, both prescription and over-the-counter, with your doctor.
As menopause approaches, most women report that their memory suffers. Working memory in particular has been shown to be affected in up to two-thirds of women. This isn’t surprising, as research has long indicated that changes during perimenopause affect hormone levels as well as neurotransmitters in the brain. Sleep patterns are also often affected by the symptoms of perimenopause, such as hot flashes and night sweats.
The good news is that memory loss as you age is not as unavoidable as some may think. There are simple mental exercises, such as learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument, which may help you to retain memory. Research does suggest, however, that small changes in working memory may start as early as the your twenties and continue to slowly decline as you age – with a more significant drop during your sixties and short-term memory taking a hit at about age 70. Other factors, such as problems with sleep and dropping hormone levels, are more likely to be the root cause of many memory-related problems.
When should you be worried about memory lapses? If you find yourself forgetting essential information, such as important dates in your life, the names of family or close friends, how to complete daily tasks, or how to get to and from familiar places – then it may be time to consult with your doctor.