HEALTH: It's All Too Easy to Forget ; Memory Lapses Can Be Embarrassing. but There Are Steps You Can Take to Sharpen Up Your Mind, Says Catherine Nixey
Nixey, Catherine, The Independent (London, England)
Forgetfulness in geniuses is often considered to be a sign of their brilliance. Einstein was famous for being hopelessly absent minded. GK Chesterton was so forgetful that he once sent a telegram to his wife from a railway station, saying: "Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?"
But among the rest of us, such "senior moments" are considered merely to be a sign of ineptitude. "I can be giving a meeting, and when I turn to introduce the person next to me I've completely forgotten their name," says Jeremy Lincoln, a 62-year-old managing director. "Or I'll go to the shops, get there, and be utterly unable to remember what I went for. It does make you feel a bit foolish."
Forgetfulness does not just afflict the old. However, most of us do become more forgetful with age. "Your brain, just like the rest of your body, starts to deteriorate," says Dr Celeste de Jager of Oxford University's Optima Institute. "And what we call `working memory' - your short-term memory - is what you see being affected. The common thing is that people forget where they've put things, or they can't remember the word that they want as quickly as they used to."
And to those with medical dictionaries, such lapses can be alarming. But there is little need to be worried. "It is quite wrong for people to assume that, just because they are becoming forgetful, they have got dementia," says Richard Morris, professor of neuroscience at Edinburgh University. "I constantly have to reassure people that aspects of forgetting are perfectly normal, especially as you age. I'm seeing them in myself, and I'm only in my fifties."
Whether and how much a person's memory deteriorates depends very much on the individual. "It is not by any means inevitable that memory declines with age," says Professor Morris. "One of the main characteristics of ageing in relation to memory is that there is great variability. Some people can retain very sharp faculties, including memory, well into their nineties."
So what makes the difference? "There are many things that seem to be beneficial in preventing deterioration of memory," says Dr de Jager. `"Exercise is one, as is having a good diet - there are a number of studies that have shown that vitamin deficiency, of the B vitamins, vitamin E and even vitamin C, can adversely affect your memory. And some herbal supplements can be helpful."
One such supplement is Actimind, which went on sale this year. It contains a combination of Panax Ginseng and Gingko Biloba, and its makers claim that it can improve your short-term memory by between seven and nine per cent - and a survey into memory that they carried out would indicate that we need it.
"Seventy-five per cent of people we interviewed admitted to walking into a room and forgetting why they were there," says Robin Bishop, a spokesperson for Actimind. "And 17 per cent of men admitted to forgetting the name of someone they've slept with. So I think we really need this supplement." Well, quite.
The supplement benefits the brain in much the same way as exercise does - by increasing blood flow to it. "Gingko, especially in combination with ginseng, has been shown to help improve memory," says Dr de Jager. "It dilates your blood vessels and that increases the amount of oxygen that can get to the brain, so it has more energy, and that helps it to function better."
Other studies have found that the hormone oestrogen can have a beneficial effect on memory in women. The influence of hormones might explain why many women report poor memory at certain times during their menstrual cycle, and why so many complain of "pregnancy brain".
Anything that exercises your mind is also thought to be good for the memory - the "use it or lose it" theory. "Ballroom dancing is good for memory," says Dr de Jager, "as is bingo. They both call on you to think about several things at once - to work out a strategy for getting around the room or to remember what lines your numbers are on. …