The Forgettable Woman

Memory Loss in Women

Here’s why we forget and 9 ways to stay sharp.

By Mary Anne Dunkin

2001 should have been a great year for Laura Luft. After a decade of single motherhood, she had a husband who loved her and her daughter. Her career as a real estate manager was thriving, too: The retail and office complex she managed was the largest in San Francisco; in fact, it was one of the largest in the western United States.

But all was not well. Medical problems triggered early menopause, and in vitro fertilization – her only hope of having a baby with her new husband – had failed. If that wasn’t enough, her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and news came on Sept. 11 that the highrise complex she managed in San Francisco was a suspected terrorist target. “It was too much,” she recalls. In a short time, she lost her sense of safety, gave up her dream of having a baby, and feared losing her husband as well. She also suffered another unexpected loss – her memory.

“Memory loss affected basically every aspect of living,” says Luft, who eventually lost her job after spending too much time away for needed treatment. “I would start a sentence and not be able to finish it. I would get lost driving home. I couldn’t find my way to the doctor’s office where I had gone for years. Sometimes, I forgot to pick up my daughter at school – she would call and ask where I was.”

Why we’re losing it

While Luft’s situation may be extreme, it is not unique. Every day, millions of American women grapple with memory loss, says Elisa Lottor, Ph.D., ND, author of Female and Forgetful (Warner Books, 2002). The results can range from embarrassing to frustrating (not being able to recall a colleague’s name or your ATM access code) to frightening or even devastating (suspecting you have Alzheimer’s or losing your job because you’ve misplaced important documents or forgotten meetings with clients).

Often associated with aging, Alzheimer’s, and “senior moments,” memory loss is not just a problem of the over-65 set. It is an increasingly common problem for their daughters and even granddaughters, many of whom are professional women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s and who are simply stressed out, says Lottor.

Stress, according to Lottor and other memory experts, is a major cause of forgetfulness. Stress causes the release of the hormone cortisol from the adrenal glands, explains Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., president and medical director of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Alzheimer’s Prevention Foundation. Small amounts of the hormone are necessary to live and function, but large amounts cause damage to the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain. He estimates stress related memory loss affects at least 10 million people, and like Alzheimer’s, this more mild memory loss is “much more common in women than in men.”

While Luft had reason to feel stressed, it certainly doesn’t take failed fertility treatment, threats of terrorism, or a loved one’s illness to induce the kind of stress that interferes with memory. “We’re all overloaded; we are all multi-tasking,” says Lottor. “Drive down the freeway and you will see women driving, talking on the phone, and putting on makeup all at the same time.”

Never in history has this overload been greater, she says. While women are making inroads to challenging high-level and once male-dominated careers, most continue to hold the traditionally female roles of mom, housekeeper, cook, and chauffeur. “We have too much competing for our attention,” Lottor says. “We can’t remember it all.”

The unhealthy lifestyle habits that are often byproducts of an overloaded, over-stressed life (not enough sleep, not enough exercise, too much fast food) can also take a toll on our ability to remember, as can the quick and unhealthy fixes (sweets, alcohol, cigarettes) we choose to relieve the stress.

What action to take

While memory loss can be life-disruptive, perhaps a bigger concern for many women is the long-term implications of it. Who, upon struggling to recall a familiar word or scouring her house to find her missing reading glasses, hasn’t wondered, “Could this be a sign of more serious problems to come?”

The consensus in the scientific community is – no one really knows. While it’s important to understand that most memory loss is not a sign of serious disease, at the same time, doctors do not know what causes dementing illnesses like Alzheimer’s or when these diseases begin. But finding answers to these questions is an important goal of organizations like the national Alzheimer’s Association. Researchers around the world are trying to understand what causes debilitating memory loss and, more importantly, how people can prevent it. (See “9 Ways to Stay Sharp” below.)

Some of the most exciting emerging evidence, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, suggests that strategies for general good health and healthy aging – for example, controlling weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels – also help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia as well. “What is good for the heart is also good for the head,” says Khalsa, whose foundation is not affiliated with the national Alzheimer’s Association.

Experts say if forgetfulness frequently interferes with your life, you need to take it seriously and take steps to improve it. Lottor recommends a diet that focuses on whole foods and incorporating healthy proteins (such as broiled chicken breast) and fats (from cold-water fish – tuna, salmon, and mackerel – and nuts), fruits and vegetables, and complex carbohydrates (whole-grain products, lentils, chickpeas).

It’s also important to get cardiovascular exercise (she recommends at least 45 minutes every day), adequate sleep, and a little downtime – an hour a day to read a book, take a warm leisurely bath, practice yoga or meditation, or do something you enjoy that helps reduce memory-robbing stress. If these self-help measures don’t work, she urges women to see their healthcare providers, who can look for other possible problems such as food allergies, chronic illness, depression, anemia, or hormonal imbalances (including low thyroid).

For Laura Luft, the answer to regaining her memory was a combination of all of these things – increased exercise, an improved diet, more downtime, and treatment for depression and low thyroid hormone. More than three years after her memory failed her, she is back to school and has started her own business, and she says she feels better than she has in years. Luft’s one regret is that she didn’t pay attention to her health sooner. She urges other women in her situation not to wait it out. “Don’t put off. It is really important to be aware of what the body is saying. If you are forgetting things all the time, then there’s something wrong.”

Why We Forget

Common Causes:

Hormonal imbalance
Poor diet
Alcohol consumption
Low blood sugar
Food allergies
Chronic health problems
Sleep deprivation

9 Ways to Stay Sharp

1. Chew. Research out of Japan suggests chewing can prevent memory loss as you age. How? MRI studies of brain activity show jaw movements increase signals in the hippocampus, an area of the brain critical for learning. Chewing can also reduce stress. (Ever wonder why you bite your nails or chew on the end of a pencil?)

2. Socialize. Chatting by the water cooler or meeting a friend for lunch may provide more than a pleasant break. In a study of 3,617 Americans, ages 24 to 96, researchers at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that those who reported the most socializing – chatting on the phone or getting together with relatives and friends, for example – performed the best on tests assessing cognition and memory, regardless of their age.

3. Drink Coffee. Just one cup in the morning can improve your concentration and memory well into the afternoon, shows a study by Lee Ryan, Ph.D., director of the Cognition and Neuroimaging Laboratories at the University of Arizona.

4. Dance. If you get the chance to sit it out or dance, consider this: Older people who dance three or four times a week are 76 percent less likely to have dementia than those who dance just once a week or less, according to research at the Albert Einstein Center in New York. The researchers believe it’s because dancing provides both physical and mental stimulation.

5. Think. Exercising your brain is just as important as exercising your body, says Robert Butler, M.D., head of the International Longevity Center in New York. Memory experts recommend learning a foreign language, playing a musical instrument, reading, working crossword puzzles, or even watching – and playing along with – TV game shows.

6. Mediate.¬†Relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, listening to music, and/or massage have been shown to relieve stress and improve mental function, says Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., president and medical director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Foundation.

7. Take Vitamin C. In a study of more than 14,000 physicians, Harvard researchers found those taking Vitamin C supplements daily over a long period of time (up to 20 years) scored higher on memory tests than did those who took Vitamin C supplements for a short period of time or not at all.

8. Eat Fish. Eating just two weekly servings of cold-water fish – salmon, mackerel, or herring – can help keep your brain healthy. How is this possible? Fish are high in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a substance that improves flow to the brain and prevents damage to areas where the brain cells communicate.

9. Take Ibuprofen. A number of studies have shown that people who regularly use anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Motrin) are not as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Animal research suggests the drugs work by reducing inflammation in the brain and inhibiting the buildup of amyloid plaques – waxy deposits – that are believed to play a role in the disease. (Speak with your doctor before using them for more than a few days.)

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