20 April 2004

Should you be concerned about your memory?

Do memory aids work?

Memory is used on a daily basis and it is an integral part of our existence. We are all aware that good memory functioning is associated with intelligence and increased effectiveness. Since early times, humans have searched for strategies and medications to improve memory functioning. We all yearn for that magical prescription that can improve memory, but does it exist?

A review of the scientific research literature does not reveal any clear front-runners in the race for a memory enhancer. It is evident that researchers are actively searching for this as scores of publications report on many different medications that can supposedly improve memory. Many studies are of excellent quality, but some are poor and it is not possible to draw any meaningful conclusions from them. Many bogus treatments are propagated through the media and often these treatments have no scientific basis.

The most important strategies for memory improvement are a well balanced diet and exercise. Mens sana in corpore sano is Latin for a sound mind in a sound body. Intellectual ability benefits immensely from a balanced diet and exercise. These basic strategies should be applied together with the supplements discussed below.

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Motivation and concentration are incredibly important for good memory functioning. If you really want to remember something you use motivation and at the same time you sharpen your concentration. Numerous books, such as those by Tony Buzan, have been written for those who are motivated to improve their memory through exercise and learning strategies. Many of these books are available in local bookshops.

Memory is only one aspect of cognitive functioning. Cognitive functioning refers to the collection of brain functions that constitute our intellectual ability. Included in this are higher order sensory and motor processing, attention and concentration, language function, and executive functions. Executive functions refer to the ability to plan a task, execute the task according to your plan, and also the ability to change execution of the task after having acquired relevant new information.

Some medications only improve memory, but many other medications improve diverse aspects of cognitive functioning.

Not day-to-day forgetfulness
Day-to-day forgetfulness is not the same as a memory illness. In older adults, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common memory illness, with vascular dementia in second place. Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive condition that consists of brain cell death and progressive cognitive impairment. Vascular dementia is a condition that is characterised by poor blood supply to the brain mainly because of artherosclerosis. It is associated with hypertension, strokes, heart attacks and diabetes.

In younger adults, day-to-day forgetfulness is often associated with poor attention and concentration. Anxiety, associated with a stressful lifestyle, is often the main culprit here.

Medications that are used to treat systemic illnesses can also have a pronounced effect on memory. If you are unsure whether medication has a negative affect on your memory then you should discuss this with your doctor. Sleeping tablets and other sedatives have a pronounced effect on memory and should be taken with care. If you are concerned about your memory, please visit your doctor.

Researchers usually study memory enhancers in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and other types of memory illness. Some studies are conducted on healthy volunteers that have no memory illness. It is difficult, and sometimes inappropriate, to extrapolate results from patient based studies to healthy persons.

In South Africa, three substances are registered for use as memory enhancers in Alzheimer’s disease. The drugs belong to the class called cholinesterase inhibitors (ChE-I) and are represented by galantamine (Reminyl®), donepezil (Aricept®) and rivastigmine (Exelon®). These drugs work by inhibiting an enzyme called cholinesterase, thus increasing the concentration of the chemical, acetylcholine, in the brain.

Most studies indicate that about 40 to 50 percent of patients with Alzheimer’s disease experience an improvement in memory on taking these medications. Patients will also experience a delay in the progression of the illness. Functioning in activities of daily living improves and caregivers will notice this change. The benefits are more prominent in the early stages of the illness and many scientists believe that the benefits are questionable in advanced illness. – Drs Frans J Hugo and Linda E van Wyk Panorama Memory Clinic


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