Think You Don’t Have Memory Problems? Think Again!
As a society, we are inundated with countless pieces of information and stimuli every day which can have a drastic effect on our brains and, more importantly, our memory. While our to-do lists and life responsibilities pile up, so do the sheer number of factors affecting how much information our brains can realistically retain. If it feels like you simply can’t remember anything anymore, you’re not alone. But to understand why, we have to take a closer look at how memory actually works.
There are essentially two types of memory: Short term (working memory) and long-term memory. For the most part, these distinct types of memory are separate systems, especially with regard to their location and function. Long-term memory is more resilient and stored more generally between the hippocampus and temporal lobe, and that is why it can withstand a great deal of brain trauma, as it is dispersed and well connected.
In our practice, we often see patients who have significant memory problems but are initially in denial. These patients often say things like, “Oh no, I have no memory problems. I can remember fifty years back. It’s the short-term stuff that I have trouble with.” They often add that they forget where they left things, names of people they just met, what they had for breakfast or lunch, or what they meant to do as they entered a room. While these minor blips in memory may seem insignificant, they are still problematic. Such issues with short-term memory are what we call the ‘canary in the mine’, or warnings of danger ahead.
Short term memory, primarily stored in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, is what you deal with every day as you interact with the world around you. It is the holding area for data before your brain processes the information and determines if it is important enough to be stored in your long-term memory. Data that stays in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus remains in your short term memory and is deemed as useful for the moment and then discarded. Thus, your short term memory is very important because anything that affects the entry or exit of information into this holding area can affect both short-term and long-term memory, and can have a drastic impact overall.
Reasons Why You Can’t Remember
What, exactly, affects these ports of entry and exit from the prefrontal cortex? The main elements are focus and attention. Anything that affects attention can also affect how information enters the short-term (working) memory or exits into the long-term memory. More commonly, the information slips out of one of the pores (metaphoric) in the prefrontal cortex and is lost quickly, which means it’s never worked on or never makes it to the long- term memory.
Multi-tasking is the most common reason for disturbances to our short-term memory. As we get older, we start working on more tasks without even realizing how many things are occupying our thoughts at any given time. In our practice, we say that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. Multi-tasking for most of us, whether we acknowledge it or not, is often doing multiple tasks poorly.
Another very common reason for short-term memory problems has to do with our emotions. There is a reason why our short-term memory is intimately connected to the emotional centers of our brain, both by proximity and function. Anything that affects our emotions will profoundly affect our memory. If the emotional issue is distracting, it will have a significant detrimental effect on attention and memory. On the other hand, if the emotional tool is used to further enhance memory, it can actually expand memories. Therefore, depression, anxiety, or even chronic low-grade melancholy can profoundly affect memory. In fact, chronic depression and anxiety have been associated with not just short-term deficit, but also long-term deficit and even risk for dementia.
Food is another common cause of short term memory problems. Nutrition matters, as all foods have either a memory stimulating and promoting quality, or a memory inhibiting effect, which is why poor nutrition can contribute to long-term risks for conditions such as dementia. Additionally, the Journal of Nutrition and others report that portion sizes have increased by approximately 138% since the 1970s, which means we’re eating more of what we probably shouldn’t. The excess of sugar, fried foods, and other saturated fats and ingredients affects parts of our brain responsible for memory, mainly the hippocampus. Unfortunately, this type of diet can also cause our brains to crave these unhealthy things, making change even more difficult. We see this cycle play out often in patients who have been unable to stick to a diet or make long-term lifestyle changes because they have gravitated to these types of foods for so long.
The final common memory thief is poor sleep. There is plenty of evidence that suggests those who don’t get enough “restorative sleep” as well as those who have chronic poor sleep have significantly worse memories. But getting good quality sleep doesn’t simply mean relying on pharmaceutical or other means to achieve seven to eight hours. The answer is regularly achieving sleep that allows you to go through the four phases of sleep several times per night. The journey through these phases is nothing less than the best spa for the brain.
How Exactly Do These Factors Affect Your Memory?
As we’ve discussed, factors like multitasking, depression, mood disorders, and food choices affect memory significantly. This is largely because they either help maintain the information in your short term memory so it can be processed and then transferred to long-term, or alternatively these factors distract and agitate to the extent that the brain doesn’t properly process and transfer information from short term to long term memory.
More specifically, multitasking affects focus and memory because it does not allow the given information (facts, names, or faces) to be processed long enough for the data to go to its proper destination. Additionally, depression, anxiety, or any other mood disorders create a background noise (running thoughts or emotions) that, once again, do not allow the said information to land where it needs to for proper processing. High glycemic foods like sugar and processed foods create or even exacerbate an agitated state of mind that, as you might guess, also affects attention, mood, and processing. You can see how all of these factors on their own or combined have the potential to wreak havoc on your memory.
Can You Get Your Memory Back?
Now that you know the sources of poor memory, you may be wondering whether you can build a stronger memory going forward. The short answer is yes! There are steps you can take starting today to improve your memory and processing abilities for the longer term.
The easiest way to do this is through focus and establishing a baseline state of attention that is not distracted or agitated. This means organizing, prioritizing, and focusing on the task at hand rather than multitasking (which can be quite a challenge but is possible!). Truly learning to focus on the present and developing the habit of present minded work takes some practice but when you start doing this more regularly you will notice a huge difference.
With regards to depression and mood disorders, the short-term answer may be medication for some , but the long-term answer is usually finding the underlying cause and addressing it with help from a psychologist and the addition of meditation and mindfulness exercises. Ironically, one of the most powerful tools that has been found to be as effective, or more effective, than any pharmaceutical therapy is exercise. Developing a regular workout routine, which slowly increases from a few minutes per day to 45 minutes of strenuous exercise, as well as natural movement throughout the day, has been proven to be highly beneficial for your brain in more ways than one.
Don’t forget nutrition. In our practice, the answer to properly feeding the brain is a resounding YES to Whole Food, Plant-Based diets. Gradually eliminate processed sugar and saturated fats, as well as processed foods, and you will see a difference in your memory and mood in just a few months.
The next time you catch yourself stumbling over a memory issue, consider some of the strategies mentioned here to help you refocus and nourish better habits for your memory and long-term brain health. If you’re looking for more advice on your journey towards a better memory and mind, please visit us at Team Sherzai MD.