As we get older it is perfectly normal to experience some degree of memory problems and a small decline in other thinking skills is a common part of the aging process. This normal age-related memory loss does not prevent a person from living a full and productive life to any substantial degree, and might for example involve occasionally forgetting a person's name or misplacing possessions. Memory loss or cognitive impairment that does significantly affect a person’s life may be due to a medical condition. Some of these conditions are not reversible, such as dementia or Alzheimer's disease. However, some of the causes of the memory and/or thinking problems may be reversible, such as:
Medications - including some sleeping pills, benzodiazepines, some painkillers
Depression - or other mental health problems including stress and anxiety
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Brain tumours - in very rare situations
The word "dementia" describes a group of symptoms, including impairment in memory, reasoning, judgment, language and other thinking skills, confusion and changes in personality and mood. It almost always begins gradually and worsens over time. Memory loss is usually one of the first signs and other early signs can include asking the same questions repeatedly; forgetting common words when speaking, mixing words up, taking longer to complete familiar tasks, and getting lost despite being in familiar places.
This is evidence that some lifestyle modifications might help to keep memory sharp, including staying mentally active (e.g. crossword puzzles, learning to play a musical instrument), socializing, sleeping well, eating healthily, and keeping physically fit.
With an ageing population it is not surprising that there is a lot of interest in medicines and supplements that can prevent or help with memory issues. Currently, prescription medications for dementia and memory loss are very expensive, have limited effectiveness and only during a short window of time and so people are increasingly turning to natural products.
There are three natural products in particular that are associated with helping memory loss and have been studied in clinical research.
This is one of the best-researched and biggest selling herbal medicines. It is extracted from the leaves of the ginkgo tree, which is native to China, Japan and Korea. As with many herbal medicines, it has been used in the East for thousands of years but has only recently been ‘discovered’ in Western countries. It is thought to improve memory and concentration by stimulating blood circulation (and therefore oxygen delivery) to the brain.
It is generally safe, but an important interaction to be aware of is that it can impact the effects of blood-thinning medications and should be stopped before surgery or dental procedures.
The main active ingredients are called "ginsenosides" which have neuroprotective effects. Overall, studies are promising and suggest that taking it can lead to improvements in some aspects of cognitive function, behavior and quality of life, but more trials are needed in people with dementia.
Finally, omega-3 fatty acids are widely thought to improve brain functioning, both in children's’ developing brains and also in the elderly. Studies have found benefits for patients with milder forms of cognitive impairment in terms of memory, attention and processing speed, but these improvements were not found in healthy subjects or those with Alzheimer’s Disease.