Memories! We all have them. Some are very pleasant and some may be not so pleasant, but our brains were made to remember. Often times, you might be sitting around reminiscing about things from your childhood, 40 or 50 years ago. Sometimes, we are simply going over something we just heard in a shiur 30 minutes ago. And frequently, we could be commenting on an item that we just read in a magazine 3 minutes prior. These are all examples of both long-term and short-term memory.
Short-term memory, also called working memory, retains information over brief periods from a few seconds to 1–2 minutes. As information comes in, the brain begins processing it immediately. When we remember pairs of words, a list of words presented orally, and/or recalling names associated with people or pictures that is short-term memory at work.
In contrast, long-term memory are memories retained more than 2 minutes after an information stimulus. For instance, recalling details of a short history story 30 minutes after it has been read; or recollecting images presented visually 15 minutes before is long-term memory at work.
Unfortunately, most of us have had the experience of speaking with someone and we notice that their memory isn’t working the way it should—that is, they can’t remember beyond normal forgetfulness. This was the case of a client I was working with a few years ago who was 70 years old. He was repeating things often as though he had never said them before. He also was not remembering how to do exercises from session to session. His neurologist confirmed my fears—there was deterioration in his short term memory.
We all know that as we get older, our memory isn’t going to be as good as when we were younger. But sometimes, memory problems are more severe. Dementia is the loss of mental abilities over time. It is often severe enough to interfere with a person’s ability to perform daily activities. People with dementia may have trouble learning new things and remembering names, and may have changes in behavior. They may experience irritation if they fail to complete a task (Kwak et al. 2008). The most common and familiar form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease.
There are also other causes to loss of memory. Certain medications can be the culprit. Antidepressants, antihistamines, anti-anxiety medications, muscle relaxants, tranquilizers, sleeping pills, and pain medications given after surgery can all cause memory loss. Alcohol, tobacco, or drug use is problematic for memory and excessive alcohol use has long been recognized as a cause of memory loss.
Smoking harms memory by reducing the amount of oxygen that gets to the brain. Sleep deprivation, stress, and depression can also cause bad recall. Good nutrition — including high-quality proteins and fats — is important to proper brain function. Deficiencies in vitamin B1 and B12 specifically can affect memory.
If you find that you are increasingly forgetful or if memory problems interfere with your daily life, schedule an appointment with your doctor to determine the cause and best treatment. To evaluate memory loss, your doctor will take a medical history, perform a physical exam — including a neurologic exam — and ask questions to test mental ability. Depending on the results, further evaluation may include blood and urine tests, nerve tests, and imaging tests of the brain such as computerized axial tomography (CAT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
Preventing Memory Loss
Can we do something to prevent memory loss and enhance our chances of maintaining good memory as we age? The answer is yes. Recent research has shown that aerobic exercise (cardiovascular) not only helps us with preventing coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, some cancers, stress, depression and anxiety in addition to other chronic diseases, but now we see that this type of exercise also can help prevent dementia.
Cardiovascular Exercise and Long and Short-Term Memory
Research suggests that walking is the most effective acute cardiovascular exercise for improving short-term memory (Roig et al. 2013). The short-term memory of young adults (aged 18–24) tends to see the most improvements from cardiovascular exercise. Cardiovascular exercise has different effects on short and long-term memory. Combining walking, running and cycling maximizes the effect of long-term cardiovascular exercise on short-term memory. Long-term cardiovascular exercise shows the greatest effect on short-term memory. Erickson and colleagues (2011) conducted a yearlong study with 120 men and women (average age 66), none of whom were diagnosed with dementia. Sixty subjects served as a control group and did stretching exercises three times a week. The experimental group engaged in cardiovascular walking exercise three times a week, gradually working up to 40 minutes per session. The walkers progressively increased their walking during the 12 months of the study and the results were better with that progression..
The hippocampus is the part of the brain that controls memory. Erickson et al. (2011) showed that the longer you exercise and the more intense it is, you can increase the size of your hippocampus by as much as 2% over the course of a year. That translates into better memory. Finally, Roig et al. (2013) add that the research indicates study subjects with at least an average fitness level have the best long-term memory gains from participation in regular cardiovascular exercise.
So we see that people who do aerobic exercise on a consistent basis are able to fight off the effects of memory loss by actually enlarging the part of the brain that controls memory. Keeping your memory intact will “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”