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illustration of the brain
by Kurt Loft on Friday September 28, 2018
Forgetful? Remember to give your brain a boost

So you’re leaving the office to go home and in the parking lot realize you left your keys in the desk drawer. That’s the second time this week.

You also forgot your sister’s birthday, the tickets to the Rays game, and a dentist appointment. Is the memory slipping? More than ever, and it gets worse with each passing birthday.

“There’s some degree of memory loss that’s normal with aging, particularly the little things like coming up with a word now and then or occasionally forgetting why you walked into a room,’’ said Dr. Amanda G. Smith, associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences and director of clinical research at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute in Tampa. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean anything’s wrong.’’

However, if you are routinely forgetting basic things, it might be a sign that something bigger is looming.

Getting older is a common reason for simple forgetfulness, researchers say. The brain shrinks as we age, and together with lack of sleep and exercise and a poor diet, the added stress affects the organ’s ability to function at a high level.

But memory loss can advance beyond what’s considered normal, and may signal the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. We begin to forget the names of friends, the plots of books just read, and plans for an upcoming vacation (was it Vermont or Virginia?)

We start to have trouble with function—writing checks, cooking meals, making repairs around the house. Eventually, longer term memories disappear, erasing entire chapters of our lives, and we start to need help with more basic tasks like dressing and bathing.

“When in every conversation you struggle with words you should know, or when your family is telling you that you always repeat yourself, that might mean it’s time to get checked out,’’ Smith said.

As for little things like forgetting your car keys, is there anything you can do to reverse it, at least partially?

“Yes,’’ Smith said. “You can do certain brain exercises that force you to pay attention to two different things at the same time. And that can potentially benefit you down the road. No one knows why, but it might have to do with whatever circuits in the brain it activates.’’

Many researchers agree that multiple tasks are key to a healthy brain, much like doing full-body workouts to keep fit.

“You wouldn’t go to the gym and just do the shoulder machine and leave,’’ Smith said. “With the brain it’s the same way. If you can mix it up and do different things, then you’re using different parts of your brain - you’re exercising the ‘muscles’ that haven’t been used. The more you use your brain the better it is.’’