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Mastering Memory

It's normal to grow more forgetful with age, but that doesn't mean we have to like it. Books and supplements--and science-- try to offer answers.


Maybe it's a sign of a mature mind when some of life's bigger questions -- about love, faith, ambition--suddenly seem more manageable than smaller ones, such as: Why did I just open the refrigerator? Where on earth did I park my car? Where did I write down that phone number?

Then again, maybe it's a sign of something else.

"Some people can't find their keys, others are forgetting everything. We see all kinds," said Celeste Bocian, who runs a free memory screening program at Sherman Oaks Hospital. The program attracts adults of almost all ages, even people in their 30s.

Who can blame them? Starting around age 28, our scores on memory tests decline steadily, researchers say; by 55, our ability to associate names with faces or memorize new phone numbers has slipped by about 20%. Almost everyone older than 40 has had a whopping lapse or two.

Yet our capacity for storing and retrieving information does not sift away like sand through an hourglass, as neurologists once believed. On the contrary, new research suggests that, when stimulated in the right way, brains of almost any age can give birth to cells and forge fresh pathways to file away new information. This emerging picture has not only encouraged those who treat and care for the 5% of older adults who have dementia such as Alzheimer's disease, but it has also generated a wave of optimism among those studying memory changes in the other 95%, as well as an increasing public fascination with "memory enhancement" dietary supplements, books and brain-boosting techniques.

"This is the hottest area there is right now: to identify the brain changes that occur in normal, age-related memory decline, so that we can do something about them," said Molly Wagster, grants director of the neuropsychology program at the National Institute on Aging, in Bethesda, Md.

The lapses many of us attribute to a failing brain are often due to something entirely different: anxiety, sleep problems, depression, even heart disease. The biological nuts and bolts of learning and memory in fact change little over time in healthy people, researchers say. "There's very little cell loss, and structurally all the machinery is there, even very late in life," said Greg Cole, a neuroscientist with the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System. It's the cells' speed and ability to send and receive signals that taper off, which is what makes the mind go blank when trying to retrieve familiar words and names. Neurologists have several theories to explain why:

* Free-radical damage. Created by normal body functions, free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage cells and cell DNA. Doctors know from autopsy evidence that brain cells are particularly vulnerable. Researchers have tested the effect of a variety of so-called antioxidants--which neutralize free radicals--with mixed results. A substance called curcumin (from the herb turmeric) significantly improves brain function in animals with memory deficits, Cole said; so do preparations that include alpha-lipoic acid and vitamins C and E, to name a few.

The evidence in humans is probably best for vitamin E, researchers say. In a 1997 study, investigators at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons showed that daily doses of vitamin E significantly slowed the progression of disease in people with advanced Alzheimer's. Some doctors believe that doses of the vitamin could also preserve cognitive function in healthy older adults.

* Loss of chemical messengers. People with Alzheimer's disease show reduced levels of a chemical in the brain called acetylcholine, which is involved in signal transmission. Using drugs that prevent the breakdown of this messenger, doctors can slow the progression of the disease. It's not yet clear how well similar substances would improve memory in healthy people, doctors say. The National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health, is helping fund a study of a moss extract called huperzine A, which also works on acetylcholine, in people with Alzheimer's disease. Results aren't yet in.

* Changes in membrane composition. Neural membranes contain a number of fatty substances critical to cell function that appear to become more scarce with advancing age, researchers say. One of these is phosphatidylserine, or PS. In a 1991 study, PS supplements derived from cow brains produced significant memory improvements in middle-aged and older adults who had normal age-related memory problems. In a 1992 trial among 51 people with Alzheimer's symptoms, those taking PS also showed some memory improvement, doctors reported. Most researchers consider the evidence preliminary and in need of better testing.

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