Many people believe that their capacity for remembering things diminishes as they get older; however, most people can take certain steps to keep their memories alive and their minds active.
Dementia is not a normal part of aging but a disease characterized by significant mental deterioration —forgetfulness, confusion, behavioral and personality changes, aggression, and disorientation. Stress, insomnia, depression, or even boredom can cause problems with our memory at any age.
Understanding Alzheimer’s disease
The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which affects about 5 percent of people older than age 65 and 20 percent of those older than age 80. The disease destroys the brain cells concerned with memory and is associated with a reduced life expectancy. The cause of Alzheimer’s disease is unknown, but several factors are thought to contribute to its development. One is a gene called apolipoprotein E4, and another is exposure to high concentrations of aluminum. Mercury in amalgam fillings does not cause Alzheimer’s diesease, but it is clearly toxic to brain cells, and would not help it. Another common cause of dementia is a stroke or a series of minor strokes. This is especially common if there is high blood pressure or high blood levels of an an amino acid called homocysteine.
Keeping our memories alive
The herb gingko biloba has been shown to regulate blood flow to the brain and may boost memory and reduce confusion in older people.
The same claim has been made for essential fatty acids, such as fish oil and flax oil, but the evidence is inconclusive. The Ayurvedic herb gotu kola is said to help induce mental calm and clarity, increase intelligence, and improve memory, although there is little scientific research on this. Diet is thought to be important; vitamin B12 , choline, and manganese may help to improve memory, and many vitamins have a positive effect on cognitive function.
Naturopaths might link memory problems to food intolerances, Candida of the gut, chronic fatigue syndrome, or some glandular disorders and usually suggest dietary changes and supplements. Sleeping well is also important, as is keeping the mind active, even by doing the crossword in your daily newspaper. Exercise can boost cognitive function by feeding the brain with oxygen and can help us stay alert as we age. Yoga, tai chi, and qigong are believed to increase “energy” flow—and therefore blood to the brain—and improve concentration, whereas meditation and relaxation help to calm the mind and relieve stress. Conventional drugs used to help mental function are called nootropics. The most common is paracetam; others include vinpocetine, and cetacetam.
Conventional treatment for Alzheimer’s disease involves drug therapy with acetylcholinesterase inhibitors, such as donepezil, rivastigmine, and galantamine. Research has shown that these drugs can delay for as much as 6-12 months the decline in thinking abilities in some people with mild to moderate disease. They are not a cure, however, and only half of people with the disease seem to benefit. They appear to block the actions of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which breaks down the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain. The theory is that a decline in levels of this neurotransmitter is responsible for the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. By making more acetylcholine available, the drugs can reduce symptoms.
Some studies have found the herb ginkgo biloba to be effective in delaying deterioration of thinking processes in people with Alzheimer’s. Research suggests that ginkgo may be as effective as the acetylcholin esterase inhibitors used in conventional medicine, although no study has directly compared them. Some evidence shows that massage reduces anxiety and alters behavior in people with the disease, but further research is needed. Chinese medicine generally regards memory problems as a “kidney” weakness and uses herbs to boost the “kidneys”. However, little research has been done on the effects of Chinese herbs or acupuncture for dementia.