There are a surprising number of disorders that can leave your steel-trap mind rusty and toothless. Fortunately many of them can be reversed. The first step is diagnosing them. The following nine problems are some of the most common memory thieves.
1. High Blood Sugar
Memory lapses may be in your blood—or, more specifically, in your blood sugar.
Protect yourself: If there’s a history of high blood sugar or diabetes in your family, have your blood sugar tested regularly. Eat well and stay active.
2. You’re Pushing too Hard
Our brains seem to rely on sleep to cement new memories. You needn’t pull all-nighters to get into trouble: In one study, volunteers who slept six hours nightly for two weeks didn’t feel sleep-deprived, yet they performed substantially worse on tests of short-term memory.
Protect yourself: Make adequate rest a priority. If you can’t? Micro-naps of six minutes were enough to boost volunteers’ short-term performance in one study. Simply falling asleep might be enough to trigger the crucial memory process in the brain, researchers suspect.
3. You Snore
You may have sleep apnea, in which your airway gets blocked during sleep, cutting off oxygen for seconds at a time and starving brain cells. Men are more likely than women to develop apnea. Extra risk factors: being overweight or over 40.
Protect yourself: If you’re a loud snorer who feels constantly fatigued, ask your doctor if you should be tested for apnea. You may need to wear a device while sleeping that delivers a constant stream of air to your nostrils through a small hose, preventing the dangerous interruptions in oxygen.
4. You Feel Manic—or Sluggish
You may have a thyroid problem. Thyroid hormones control your metabolism, but too much or too little can disrupt the normal chatter between brain cells. An overactive thyroid creates too much static for the brain’s messages to get through, while a sluggish thyroid slows brain messages to a crawl.
Protect yourself: Talk to a doctor about bothersome symptoms (especially if you’re a woman—you’re at higher risk for hypothyroidism). An underperforming thyroid can leave you fatigued; with a hyped-up thyroid, your heart may race and you may feel manic or anxious.
5. Over 65
It gets harder to absorb vitamin B12 from food as you age, and a serious deficiency can look a lot like Alzheimer’s disease. Up to 20 percent of people over 65 are low in B12.
Protect yourself: If you’re older and feeling fuzzy, ask your doctor if you should have your B12 level checked; you may need a supplement. Also consider a test if you’re a strict vegetarian—you avoid the top food sources of the vitamin.
6. You’re Depressed
People with severe depression lose brain cells. And the longer the depression lasts, the more cells are lost in areas critical to memory.
Protect yourself: Early treatment may be key. A 2008 study suggested that people who had longer episodes of depression were less likely to show memory improvement after their mood lifted.
7. Allergy or Sleep Medication
Many drugs commonly prescribed for things like insomnia, incontinence, allergies, and gastrointestinal cramps also interfere with a crucial brain chemical. If you’re elderly, these drugs, called anticholinergics, can cause mental fogginess and forgetfulness.
Protect yourself: If you’re over age 65, you’re more vulnerable to side effects from diphenhydramine, an anticholinergic used in many over-the-counter sleep aids and allergy drugs. Mental fuzziness after starting these or any meds should prompt a talk with your doctor or pharmacist.
8. You Shuffle When You Walk
Doctors call it a magnetic gait because your feet seem to stick to the ground. It could signal normal pressure hydrocephalus, in which pockets in the brain swell with too much spinal fluid.
Protect yourself: A shuffle, incontinence, and memory problems are the classic symptoms, but not everyone has all three. Prompt treatment gives you the best chance of memory improvement.
9. Too Much Medication
If you’re on five or more drugs (polypharmacy), you’re at high risk for problematic interactions. And yes, over-the-counter remedies count.
Protect yourself: Make sure your doctor knows all the drugs you’re taking. If a pharmaceutical commercial seems to be speaking directly to you, ask your doc—but don’t push for a prescription.
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