Health & Fitness

I keep losing my keys and I can’t remember a friend’s name. Is my memory issue serious?

Dr. David A. Loewenstein, left, professor of psychiatry with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, simulates a Semantic Interference Test, SIT, with a clinical psychiatrist at the medical school, as she identifies different objects in a bag and then has to recall them. The test helps diagnose those showing with moderate cognitive impairment.
Dr. David A. Loewenstein, left, professor of psychiatry with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, simulates a Semantic Interference Test, SIT, with a clinical psychiatrist at the medical school, as she identifies different objects in a bag and then has to recall them. The test helps diagnose those showing with moderate cognitive impairment. Miami Herald file photo

You run into an old friend but can’t remember her name. It bothers you for the next few days until suddenly her name comes to mind.

Is this memory lapse normal or something you should be concerned about?

It may be comforting to know that some forgetting as you age is normal. Your memory, just like your muscles and bones, gets weaker over time. Older people often experience decreased blood flow to the brain, which can impair memory and lead to changes in cognitive skills.

A person’s ability to learn and recall newly presented information is half as good at age 70 as 35, explains Philip D. Harvey, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. However, some memory capacity improves with age such as wisdom to recall from: “Information storage increases slowly, but definitely, over time … so basically, while you may forget in the short term, the overall amount you know increases,” Harvey said.

Harvey is the director of a brain fitness pavilion at the medical school where he and other specialists administer brain fitness training programs to help improve memory, concentration, attention and mental speed. “Brain training works,” he said. “While distractions add to forgetfulness, the challenges with healthy aging are trying to learn and remember newly presented information, even if it is the only thing you are focusing on.”

There is a point where memory decline becomes concerning, and could be an early sign of more serious conditions, including Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“It’s when you forget you had a conversation with someone, rather than the details, that can be a problem,” said Dr. Marc Agronin, vice president of behavioral health at Miami Jewish Health Systems.

marc agronin
Dr. Marc Agronin, a board-certified geriatric psychiatrist and medical director at Miami Jewish Health Systems, consults with a senior on memory issues. Miami Jewish Health Systems

People who have more serious cognitive impairment can’t remember something specific even when prompted or cued. With normal forgetfulness, if asked to recall a phone number, you will recognize at least some of the digits when prompted. With more serious cognitive disorders, you may not even remember being told the phone number at all. “The information would be gone as would all attempts to retrieve it,” he said.

If you are uncertain whether your memory slips are normal or more serious, it may be time to consult a specialist, preferably at a memory center. Florida has 15 memory centers with trained specialists and researchers, who evaluate, treat and research Alzheimer’s disease and other memory problems. Two of the centers are in Miami-Dade — the University of Miami’s Memory Disorder Center and the Wein Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach.

In terms of diagnosis, Agronin at Miami Jewish Health Systems and author of “The Dementia Caregiver,” said there is not one specific test, but rather a series of steps professionals can administer to determine if there is impairment and the cause. Doctors consider the test results within the context of other factors such brain scans, blood tests, medical and psychiatric history and a physical exam, he said.

Not all cognitive impairment represents Alzheimer’s disease. Rather, it could be depression, anxiety, medicine interactions, Harvey said. Some of those causes may be reversible.

Meanwhile, certain vitamins and fatty acids have been said to slow or prevent memory loss such as vitamin B-12 and herbal supplements such as ginkgo biloba, and omega-3 fatty acids. But none of them have been shown to have any benefit on memory or cognitive functions, Agronin said.

In addition, studies are looking at ways to slow down Alzheimer’s or reduce symptoms, but these are ongoing and still years away from anything new on the market, Agronin said. The most advanced studies use immunotherapy to give people antibodies to help their immune system get rid of the toxic proteins that are believed to be the main causes of Alzheimer’s.

Medical experts say the best way to keep your memory sharp is a brain-healthy lifestyle: moderate physical exercise as well as a Mediterranean-like diet rich in fruits and vegetables and healthy oils — and no excess fats, sugars, red meat and processed foods. It also is important to stay active mentally and socially doing things that bring you joy, meaning and purpose.

Shulamit Assif, an international expert in memory and learning techniques, conducts workshops on how to improve your memory. She recently held workshops at the David Posnack Jewish Community Center in Davie.

Assif said some forgetfulness today is associated with the plethora of distractions. “When people are distracted, they blame it on bad memory,” she said.

A strategy to remember where you put your car keys, or a person’s name or an important date is to associate it with one of your senses or an emotion, she said. One of the worst things to do is stress over what you can’t remember. It’s when you relax that the fleeting memory often returns. Assif said the best tips she can offer are “breathe, relax rather than stress when you can’t remember something, and keep your brain active and challenged.”

Tips for keeping your memory sharp

▪ Maintain a heart healthy diet.

▪ Engage in physical exercise.

▪  Manage your stress.

▪  Remain socially engaged and active.

▪  Get adequate sleep.

▪  Be adaptive to change and life’s transitions.

▪  Challenge yourself with mental stimulation (crossword puzzles, card games, etc.).

Source: Center on Aging, University of Miami School of Medicine

Memory Centers

▪ University of Miami Memory Disorders Center at the Miller School of Medicine

1150 NW 14th St., Miami; 305-243-6633

▪ Wien Center for Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders at Mount Sinai Medical Center

4300 Alton Road, Miami Beach; (305) 676-6417

▪ Memory Center, Miami Jewish Health Systems

5200 NE Second Ave., Miami; 305-751-8626

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