How many times have you forgotten someone’s name, or a specific word? What about losing your keys – how many minutes this week have you wasted hunting for them? As we get older we worry that memory slips such as these might be a sign of more serious brain issues but, in fact, a lot of other medical or lifestyle factors can cause memory lapses. Could any of these be behind your slip-ups?

Recent surgery

Whether it’s the impact of the anesthetic drugs on the brain, or an inflammatory reaction isn’t yet known, but memory problems do occur after surgery. “It’s rare in the under-40s, but in the over-60s 25 per cent of people have some measure of cognitive decline seven days after surgery and 10 per cent still have it three months after. We’d expect a middle-aged group to be somewhere in the between,” says Dr Brendan Silbert from St Vincent’s Hospital.

Silbert says there’s no way yet to predict if the problem is going to happen, or how to treat it. However, some homeopaths recommend the remedies Nux Vomica or Phosphorus to tackle post-anesthetic memory effects.

Your weight-loss plan

In US studies, women who followed a low-carbohydrate diet for a week performed significantly worse than those on a high-care plan (even if those women had cut kilojoules). According to the study’s author, Professor Holly Taylor, “this study demonstrates that the food you eat can have an immediate impact on cognitive behavior”.

The theory is that quitting carbs reduces your brain’s available glucose, which it uses for energy, so it doesn’t get enough fuel to remember things. The good news is that when you introduce carbs again, the problem reverses.

Heart problems

Recently, Professor Osvaldo Almeida from the University of Western Australia found the heart failure patients have actual physical changes in regions of the brain linked to functions like memory.

Almeida wasn’t the first to link heart problems and poor memory. French researchers found women with heart disease risk factors like high cholesterol and high blood pressure scored seven per cent lower on memory tests than other women.

“It’s not clear why heart failure is associated with loss of cerebral cells and worse cognitive function,” Almeida says. However, he suggests that adopting a healthy lifestyle and managing risk factors like high blood pressure and diabetes might help stop memory loss developing in non-sufferers. It may also help prevent its potential escalation in those already affected, he says.

Low stomach acid levels

One of the most important vitamins for memory is vitamin B12, commonly found in meat. The problem is that absorption of this is reduced if you have low levels of stomach acid. “And as we age we naturally secrete less gastric acid,” says naturopathic nutritionist Olwen Anderson. “Stress can also lower levels.”

Description: Low stomach acid levels

Signs that you might have low stomach acid include reflux and heartburn and a feeling of food sitting in your stomach after eating. If you are affected, starting meals with something bitter – either foods like rocket or a special digestive tonic like herbal bitters – can encourage acid production.

Your medications

You can’t remember something if you didn’t retain it in the first place – and medications can affect this process. In his new book, Younger Brain, Sharper Mind (Rodale, $36.95), US anti-ageing specialist Dr Eric Braverman talks about the importance of brain speed in memory retention. If thinking slows too much, “the neurons no longer fire off information and new information will not become embedded in the memory”.

Typically, we lose seven to 10 milliseconds of brain speed per decade from the age of 20, which is why memory fades with age, but some things can interfere further with the process – including many drugs, both prescription and over the counter. If you’ve noticed problems, ask your GP.

The contraceptive injection

Many women using the contraceptive Depo Provera talk anecdotally about memory slips as a side effect, and now there might be an explanation. Researcher Blair Braden from Arizona State University has found animals given the hormone medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) – the active ingredient in Depo Provera – had more difficulty remembering things as they aged than others. It’s suspected that MPA affects the neurotransmitter GABA. “What GABA does is slow the brain down,” says Braden. “If there is too much of it, it can make it more difficult to produce memories. But if there are too little you also can’t produce memories correctly.”

The researchers say they need to confirm the link in women to conclude that the jab impacts on memory.

Description: Short-term memories have to be consolidated into long-term memories or they are lost,

Sleep apneal

People who have sleep apneal suffer what sleep researchers call micro-arousals throughout the night. In these, you wake up for a few seconds but it’s so fast you don’t even realize you’ve done it – the problem is, your brain does. “Short-term memories have to be consolidated into long-term memories or they are lost,” says Professor H Craig Heller from Stanford University. “We believe this process occurs during sleep, in particular during a stage called non-REM sleep, and that fragmentation of that sleep can interfere with it.”

Allergy sufferers also suffer micro-arousals, so if your memory seems worse during hay fever season, that could be why.

Using too much technology

Relying on mobile phones to remember telephone numbers and appointments means most of us don’t use our memory as often as we should, and like a muscle it gets weak and lazy without use. In fact, Professor Ian Robertson from Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin, found 20-somethings who were reliant on technology actually had more trouble remembering things like phone or PIN numbers than 50-somethings who grew up committing things to memory.

Also, to remember something your brain has to know to do so. Recent studies from the US’s Columbia University have revealed that if we look facts up online we tend not to bother trying to remember them because we know we can just find them again another time – so they rapidly go out of our heads. If you need to remember something, write it down.


Over 70 per cent of chemotherapy recipients experience memory lapses and fuzzy thinking post-chemotherapy. Sufferers call it “chemo brain” and, as yet, it’s not known if it’s the impact of cytotoxic drugs used during treatment, inflammatory cytokines emitted by the cancer itself or a combination of both that cause it. However, “it tends to affect short-term memory and executive functions, like multi-tasking, especially at times when you have to extend yourself or concentrate”, say Dr Haryana Dhillon, one of the team studying “chemo brain” at the University of Sydney.

The good news is for most people it passes after about six months. “In that time, managing other problems like stress, anxiety, sleeplessness or depression that can also impact on memory can at least stop it getting worse,” says Dhillon.

She also says there’s some preliminary data to suggest that exercise – just enough to meet current physical activity guidelines – may help improve chemo brain, or stop it occurring at all.

Peri menopause

Women often complain of memory issues post-menopause, but US research shows the peri menopause – especially the years just before the last period – is a worse time for learning and recalling new things.

“The theory holds that menopause transition symptoms like hot flushes or sleep problems are the reason for this,” says Dr Gail Greendale from UCLA, “but our research doesn’t support that.”

A more likely theory is that the sudden drop of estrogen at peri menopause triggers problems – estrogen is good for brain regions responsible for memory. Greendale is testing that theory now but, in the meantime, she says, “My best advice is don’t panic. This is not meant to be glib. Part of what upsets women when they experience these (memory problems) is that they are predictive of further decline, but our data shows that your memory bounces back post-menopause”.

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