When I tell people that I’m a neuropsychologist the first question usually get asked is “what the heck is that” or “did you make that word up”? When explain that I study how changes in brain health impact our thinking and behaviour I usually get a lot of questions about how memory. Here the most common questions I get asked
1. Am I going to get Alzheimer’s?
This question usually start something like “my grandpa had Alzheimer’s am I going to get Alzheimer’s?” There are some factors that increase our risk of dementia like Alzheimer’s disease. Some factors we can control and generally are what we call cardiovascular risk factors (e.g. smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity). Some factors we can’t control like age (risk goes up with age). There is a genetic component in some families, with some families having very high rates of dementia. These familial cases are quite rare. Most cases of Alzheimer’s disease are what we call sporadic which they aren’t associated with any one factor but likely represent a combination of factors. The best things that we can do to prevent dementia of any type are to maintain our physical health through diet and exercise, and keep our brains active.
2. Do nutritional supplement improved memory?
Short answer is no. A recent evidence review completed by the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH) determined that the scientific evidence does not support the use of any supplement to prevent, slow, reverse, or stop cognitive decline or dementia. The GCBH concluded that for most people the best way to get nutrients for brain health is from a healthy diet. In addition to not actually improving memory, in some cases nutritional supplements can make health including memory works. The supplements are not well-regulated and can interact with other medications that you are taking. When in doubt talk to your pharmacist about how nutritional supplements might interact with any medications.
3. Should I buy brain training games?
Only if you find them fun and can afford them. There is not enough evidence in the research to suggest that brain training games that you can buy for your computer or your iPad improve thinking skills in daily life. With practice you will get better at the game, but this practice doesn’t transfer to other skills. So you won’t get better at remembering your to do list just because you get better at these games. Regular reading can help maintain brain health. If you don’t like these games, save your money and go to the library to get a book.
4. How come I forget things?
There are many reasons that we have trouble keeping track of things day-to-day. Distraction is usually the biggest one. For example I’ve been trying to remember to pick up stamps for about a week. I have a note on the fridge at home and I look at it every day but as soon as I leave the house I start thinking about other things I need to get done and so I forget to pick up stamps until I get home again. It is normal to forget things from time to time, we all do it. The best way to help our memory in these situations is to use reminders. Write things down that you need to remember in a place that you will see it when you need it (like I should put a note in my car to remember stamps)!
5. What’s the number one thing I can do to improve my memory?
If I had to recommend one thing to improve brain health and memory it would be regular physical exercise. Hands down. Exercise is the factor that we have the best research support for maintaining brain health. This doesn’t have to be really difficult exercise either. Even 20 minutes a day of moderate intensity exercise such as a brisk walk can improve brain health and memory.