Every time I forget something or can’t recall a name, a little chill runs down my spine. What if I have Alzheimer’s? Or, when I go into another room to get something and forget what I came for, fear grips me as I stand helplessly in the room trying to remember. “I forgot,” “It’s on the tip of my tongue,” and “Where did I park the car?” are moments I dread.
If these types of incidents are happening to you more and more frequently, you may understandably be concerned about memory loss. You may feel your mind isn’t quite as agile as it always was and wish that there were something you could do. Well, there is.
A certain amount of memory loss is natural as we age and does not mean that Alzheimer’s or senile dementia are necessarily in our future. Age-related memory loss occurs for many reasons and we can frequently do something about the underlying causes. Mild forms of non-Alzheimer’s memory loss, generally referred to as age-related cognitive impairments, are frequently caused by both reduced blood flow and oxygen supply to the brain. According to Peter Degnan, M.D., an integrative medical physician at the Equinox Health and Healing Center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, blood vessels (particularly the very small ones) to the brain tend to narrow and become blocked with plaque, much as they do in people with coronary heart disease. Degnan also says that as we age, blood vessels constrict and lose their elasticity, and the blood itself becomes “sticky and sludgy.” Thus, “delivery of vital nutrients to the brain, particularly glucose and oxygen, is slowed,” he explains.
Degnan points out that some people may experience multiple mini-strokes that they are not even aware of until the cumulative effects result in serious memory loss, cognitive decline, and even personality changes. In this case, it’s essential to get appropriate medical attention because mini-strokes can be treated.
Other causes of memory loss may result from damage to brain cells by free radicals and the increased concentration of free radicals in the brain. Evidence also indicates that levels of neurotransmitters in our brains decline as we age, says Gail Hochanadel, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And finally, B vitamins, particularly B6, B12, and folate, which aid in neurological and cognitive function, tend to be at lower levels in older people. Although the need for B vitamins is higher in the elderly population, their dietary intake is often lower, and B12 absorption may be impaired.
Just because some memory loss is a normal part of aging doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do about it. There are memory enhancers on the market that have been shown to be quite effective, certain foods that appear to enhance memory, antioxidant vitamins, and many completely natural ways to keep your memory sharp. But before you take anything, Degnan recommends a complete evaluation to determine the type of memory loss you have so that proper treatment can be initiated. An incorrect diagnosis can delay critically needed treatment, particularly in the case of Alzheimer’s.
Normal, age-related memory loss may be treated in a variety of ways. Many of us are familiar with memory enhancers such as ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) and Huperzine A—both have been on the market for some time. Ginkgo is believed to inhibit oxidation of brain cells and enhance blood circulation. Huperzine A, extracted from club moss (Huperzia serrata), is thought to inhibit the enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, a brain chemical that’s vital to memory.
There is also considerable evidence that vitamins, diet, exercise, and staying mentally active can slow memory loss. Antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E neutralize free radicals that damage brain cells. B vitamins, particularly B6, have been positively linked with cognitive function. A Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil may also reduce damage to brain cell membranes, and the omega-3 fatty acids in fish contribute to brain health. Finally, exercise improves blood flow to the brain.
A derivative of the periwinkle plant, vinpocetine is considered a powerful and natural memory-boosting supplement that can improve concentration, attention span, alertness, and cognition. It has recently become available over the counter in the United States.
Ray Sahelian, M.D., author of Mind Boosters (St. Martin’s, 2000), says, “Experiments with vinpocetine indicate that it can dilate blood vessels, enhance circulation in the brain, improve oxygen utilization, make blood cells more pliable, and inhibit aggregation of platelets. Vinpocetine even has antioxidant properties.”
But how does vinpocetine work, and who should take it? Vinpocetine works because it is a blood thinner that enhances blood circulation to the brain, improves oxygen utilization, dilates blood vessels, delivers more glucose to brain cells, improves brain cell metabolism, inhibits the formation of platelets that block blood flow, reduces blood coagulation, and has antioxidant effects. Sahelian says that “individuals with atherosclerotic vascular disease are probably the most likely to benefit.”
Because vinpocetine is a blood thinner, it should not be taken by people on aspirin therapy or blood-thinning medication such as Coumadin or Trental, except on the advice of a physician. Other over-the-counter supplements such as ginkgo, garlic, phosphatidylserine, and high doses of vitamin E also may interact with vinpocetine and should be taken with care. Safety in pregnant women or people with serious liver or kidney disease has not been established. The watchword is, consult your physician.
Degnan recommends a dosage of 10 mg twice a day but suggests patients may increase the dose if appropriate. Although it has very few side effects, vinpocetine has been known to cause nausea, headaches, and gastrointestinal discomfort in highly sensitive people. Thus, Degnan recommends increasing the dose slowly and taking vinpocetine with food to improve absorption and minimize possible stomach upset.
The speed with which it takes effect varies considerably from person to person, depending on the severity of blood flow problems and the extent of memory loss. Degnan says that the timing of effects can range anywhere from sixty to ninety days. He usually recommends that patients try at least an eight-week trial period. Some people report noticeable changes within seven to ten days, but if you don’t see improvement, give it significantly more time.
Vinpocetine has been used in Europe for more than twenty years and has been found to be safe and effective. It is sold as a drug (under the name Cavinton) in Europe and as a dietary supplement in the United States. Even though clinical studies indicate that it is safe and effective for improving cognitive function, Degnan says that all drugs, including over-the-counter remedies, should be discussed with a doctor to avoid medication interactions or inappropriate use and doses.
So, if you are having more and more “senior moments,” vinpocetine appears to be a promising memory enhancer. However, follow Degnan’s advice: Consult your physician before taking any supplements. And it’s always wise to exercise, eat properly, take vitamin supplements, use your mind, and get enough sleep.
Christine Ridout is a freelance writer and director of the BostonWest Center for Writing and Photography in Wayland, Massachusetts.