As we get older, it’s seems easier and easier to make jokes about little lapses in memory. In fact, we often joke about our “senior moments” when something slips our minds.
But even mild memory loss is no joking matter. Even less amusing is when we or someone we love is faced with a neurocognitive disorder like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
A big problem with little help
Memory loss is a big problem. More and more of the population is aging, and the rate of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years after the age of 65, according to Dr. Y Pritham Raj, a board-certified psychiatrist and internist who serves as medical director of Adventist Health’s Emotional Wellness Center.
Unfortunately, there isn’t great treatment right now for failing memory. That means preventing and slowing memory loss is the best way to keep your brain in shape.
Remembering to sleep—and sleeping to remember
When it comes to keeping your memory healthy, you really can sleep on the job. That’s because sleep is an important part of your memory’s health, Dr. Raj explains.
He notes how we tend to sacrifice sleep for entertainment—like watching TV or staring at our phones. This lack of sleep destroys our productivity while we are awake and puts us at risk for memory lapses.
To help you get the best sleep possible, Dr. Raj recommends:
- Set a strict bedtime: Create a consistent bedtime routine, and go to bed at the same time every night.
- Be careful of medications and how they impact your sleep: Raj points out we don’t just need sleep—we need healthy sleep. He also notes that some sleep aids actually erode memory.
- Use the Adventist Health Sleep Clinic: The providers at the Adventist Health Sleep Disorders Center can evaluate you for what is impacting your sleep and help you make a plan to get a better night’s rest. They’ve also created a free download, The Getting to Sleep Guide.
- Stay off the screens: Using computer and phone screens too close to bedtime can keep you awake. That’s largely due to the intense blue light these screens give off. Add to that the stress of reading a work email or alarming news story right before bed, and you have a recipe for a restless night.
The 5 W’s of memory health
In addition to getting enough—and good—sleep, Dr. Raj offers five “W’s” to help keep your brain as healthy as possible:
- Walk quickly
- Wellness in eating
- Worry less
- Watch for emerging depression
- Whisper a prayer
Walk quickly: When it comes to increasing your physical activity, “we all say we don’t have time,” says Dr. Raj. Yet it only takes 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (not “exercise” necessarily, Dr. Raj reminds us) most days of the week to make a big difference.
In fact, Dr. Raj says, studies show exercise is equivalent to medication when it comes to treating depression. And walking is totally free.
He suggests figuring out a spot that is three-quarters of a mile away from your home. “If you can walk there and back in 30 minutes every day, you have your recipe for success,” Dr. Raj explains.
It’s OK to push yourself, but Dr. Raj also warns against trying to ramp up your activity level all at once.
Wellness in eating: Increased weight puts you at risk for dementia. “It’s not a trivial thing when it comes to dementia,” Dr. Raj says. If your BMI is over 30, you are 288 percent more likely to get dementia than those with a healthy BMI of 20–25.
If you know your height and weight, you can calculate your BMI easily online. You can also go online to find suggestions for better ways to balance your diet toward healthy fruits and vegetables.
Dr. Raj recommends visiting www.choosemyplate.gov for ideas. He also suggests adding more nuts and olive oil to your diet. “If you have a snack habit, make it nuts,” he says.
Worry less: Worry takes up a lot of mental energy and can be associated with depression. In fact, you can actually be scared to death, Dr. Raj says. For example, people with heart disease plus anxiety have a 74 percent higher risk of a cardiovascular event than those with heart disease alone.
In addition to the value of regular walking, Dr. Raj points deep breathing as a key to reducing your worry. “If you find yourself super-stressed, breathe,” he says. “Oxygen fills us with a sense of euphoria.”
Dr. Raj recommends a 10-second cycle of breathing. For one minute, breathe in through your nose for five seconds, then out through your mouth for five seconds. He adds you can get even more benefit by adding mental imagery—like picturing a beach or other tranquil place.
“There is power in using the ‘muscle’ between our ears for self-soothing,” Dr. Raj explains.
Watch for depression: Depression becomes more prevalent as we get older. Women’s highest risk of suicide is in midlife, while men’s continues to rise as they age. In fact, Oregon is in the top 10 states for suicide.
Signs of depression include:
- Feeling down, depressed and/or hopeless
- Little interest or pleasure in things that normally interest or please you
Dr. Raj recommends going through the PHQ-9 depression screening, which you can even take online—today as well as over time, so you can see any changes. Don’t hesitate to talk with your primary care physician about any concerns you have about depression.
Whisper a prayer: Dr. Raj explains that research involving all kinds of religion points to spiritual connection as a method of improving health. In fact, therapies like prayer, relaxation, mental imagery and touch show a 25 to 30 percent reduction in adverse outcomes.
In addition to actively working on your personal prayer life, reach out to others to create a spiritual community. Interestingly, health risks are the lowest when you have people praying for you, Dr. Raj says.
Even if you don’t have a church or prayer group, you can be part of a 24/7 prayer community through Adventist Health’s online PrayerWorks community.
Dr. Raj’s five W’s to help stop memory loss are also addressed in Adventist Heath’s Creating Health classes.
Cognition testing at home
If you’re worried about a loved one’s memory, Dr. Raj suggests using a mini cognition test at home. “It’s a really quick and dirty screening for cognition,” he explains.
The test is relatively simple.
- Ask the person to remember three items: apple, table and penny. Be sure they hear you clearly.
- Draw a circle on a piece of paper. Ask the person to pretend the circle is the face of a clock. Have them write the numbers in the proper place.
- Ask the person to repeat the original three items.
- Score one point for each word remembered and another point if the clock is perfect.
“Three out of four is OK,” says Dr. Raj. “Two out of four—or fewer—and you should talk with a doctor.”
Prevention over cure
“Senior moments” may be a sign your memory is weakening, but getting healthy sleep and following Dr. Raj’s five W’s can help halt cognition problems. And best of all, following these steps is also a great way to improve your overall health in any phase of life.
If you have any concerns about your cognition or mental health, be sure to bring them up with your primary care physician. If you don’t have a primary care provider, give Adventist Health a call today at 503-261-6929. We’re happy to help match you with a provider who fits your needs and preferences.
Author: LivingWell PDX Blog
Adventist Health is committed to creating a healthier Portland community.