Seventeenth-century British scholar Thomas Fuller once said, "Memory is the treasure house of the mind wherein the monuments thereof are kept and preserved." He is also known for the famous quote: "We never know the worth of water till the well is dry."
These two axioms go hand in hand, when we think first about the value of our memories, and then about the heartbreak of losing them. Though some memory changes can be expected as we age, dementia and cognitive decline don't have to be foregone conclusions of growing older.
Before we dig in, let's reflect on the importance of memory and what it means to us as humans. Our memories are not only our connections to who we are and our experiences; they're also responsible for storing our knowledge base so we can perform basic life functions.
Further, they allow us to participate in our interactions with others, whether it's recalling a story from childhood or remembering a lunch date on Tuesday. Of course, there are practical matters that memory contributes to as well, like remembering to take medications on time or where we placed our car keys.
It's easy to see why caring for—and even working to improve—memory is critical to our overall well-being. To help us understand this topic better, we talked with Heshan Fernando, Ph.D., Clinical Neuropsychologist with Corewell Health.
In his practice, Dr. Fernando has seen many patients who come in for an evaluation because they've noticed a recent decline, only to learn the disease process has likely been going on much longer, even up to 10 years. This is why he stresses early intervention, and notes the actions taken in our 40s and 50s can have a profound effect on our function in the years that follow.
"What we're essentially doing by caring about memory early is building up what we call 'cognitive reserve,' and this is the amalgamation of our intellectual experiences, schooling, occupational achievements and information we've gathered over time," Dr. Fernando said. "All of these essentially help create a buffer against cognitive decline later in life."
Being proactive about memory care involves a four-pronged approach, according to Dr. Fernando.
Physical exercise. This may be the most significant factor—even over mental tasks. Recent studies show a 30-80% reduced risk of dementia later in life attributed just to physical exercise. Dr. Fernando encourages about 20-30 minutes a day of light aerobic activity, or 150 minutes per week. Whether it's walking, stationary biking, or using an at-home exercise program, anything that gets the heart rate up and our bodies moving can have substantial implications.
Cognitive activities. Doing crossword puzzles, playing sudoku, using phone-based, brain training apps (such as Elevate), or getting engrossed in an adult coloring book are beneficial daily activities. Dr. Fernando also lists taking an online college course, learning a new language or instrument, or listening to TED Talks as great ways to acquire new information.
A heart-healthy diet. Similar to exercise, the right food intake is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain. Dr. Fernando says the Mediterranean Diet is considered the gold standard from a medical standpoint. But, even just consistently eating meals that emphasize fruits and vegetables and lean meats like chicken and fish—while indulging less in red meat and dairy—can provide positive results.
Socializing. "Interacting with others helps keep up our cognitive skills because there's not only an exchange of information; we're also considering different perspectives and maybe learning something new," Dr. Fernando said. "We have evidence that being with other fellow human beings is very important for us not only socially and emotionally, but also cognitively."
These are all preventative measures, but what should we be paying attention to if we feel decline is already occurring? How do we know when it's not normal forgetfulness?
Dr. Fernando says we should be concerned when our symptoms have some sort of functional impact; when they're starting to affect our ability to manage our daily affairs. Friends and family members noticing something different in us can also be a good barometer—and a prompt that it might be time to follow up with a medical professional.
ANOTHER WAY TO BE PROACTIVE
Track cognitive health by asking primary care physicians to administer a simple cognitive exam early in life around age 50, like other types of screenings. These tests provide a way to track stability, decline or improvement over time.
Allison Kay Bannister has been a West Michigan resident since 1987 and a professional writer since 2002. A GVSU alumna, she launched her own freelance writing business in 2017. Allison is a cookie connoisseur, word nerd, aspiring gardener, and metastatic breast cancer thriver who loves traveling in Michigan and beyond, and enjoys art, world cuisine, wine, music, and making homemade preserves.
This article originally appeared in the Aug/Sep '23 issue of West Michigan Woman.