Memory: Myth Versus Truth

Concerned about memory loss? You’re not alone. When a major university polled 2,678 people about their biggest health fears, Alzheimer’s disease was second only to cancer. And a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in eight adults age 60 and older had recently noticed more memory loss or confusion.

The good news: You can take steps to keep your mind sharp as you get older. But some of the solutions for memory protection that you’re hearing about may not be as helpful as advertised, cautions Constantine Lyketsos, M.D., director of the Memory and Alzheimer’s Treatment Center at Johns Hopkins. Here’s expert help sorting through popular memory myths.

Myth: Forgetfulness = Alzheimer’s.

Truth: It’s normal to have more memory slipups as you get older.

They’re not necessarily signs that you have a serious problem like Alzheimer’s. For example, if you forget where you put your keys, that’s not unusual. But if you forget what the keys are used for, that’s a red flag. If you’re concerned, always check with your doctor. A medical professional can test your memory and suggest steps to keep your brain healthy and strong.

Myth: Doing puzzles can improve your overall memory.

Truth: The benefits are limited.

“Doing crosswords and other puzzles is a form of memory training. People can improve their memory by doing those sorts of things,” Lyketsos says. However, a puzzle will only strengthen the type of memory it uses. If you do crossword puzzles, you’ll get better at doing crosswords, he says. If you read mystery stories, you’ll get better at solving mysteries. But these won’t necessarily help you remember directions or people’s names better. And, benefits only seem to last as long as you keeping doing the puzzles; when you stop, whatever benefit you had could be lost.

If you’re looking for meaningful memory boosts, put these truths into practice.

Truth: Exercise can help your memory.

Exercise—even simple forms like walking and cycling—may keep your mind sharper, Lyketsos says. Research has shown that physical activity may also lower your risk of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. It’s important to introduce variety into your regimen over time; mix it up by biking this week, walking next week, and playing a group sport the week after.

Experts aren’t sure exactly how exercise may help your memory, Lyketsos admits. It may work by promoting better blood flow to your brain. But exercise may also help because it requires you to think—for example, learning new (sometimes complex) movements and keeping count of repetitions or interval times. Exercise also keeps you socially engaged, which probably helps too.

Truth: What you eat can keep you mentally sharp.

For a healthy brain, keep this motto in mind: “If it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your brain,” Lyketsos says. Research has found that a Mediterranean-style diet may lower your risk of heart attack, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease while boosting your brain’s functioning. A Mediterranean diet focuses on fruits, vegetables, fish, grains, beans, nuts and olive oil while minimizing red meat and sugary sweets.

Truth: Hidden factors may be harming your memory.

Sometimes memory problems are related to lifestyle issues that are treatable, Lyketsos says. These include:

  • Depression: When you’re depressed, your brain may have trouble filing away information properly.
  • Heavy drinking: People who use too much alcohol often develop problems thinking clearly.
  • Isolation: You can help keep your mind sharp by staying social, Lyketsos says. That means spending more time visiting with friends and doing activities with other people.


Dementia (di-men-sha): A loss of brain function that can be caused by a variety of disorders affecting the brain. Symptoms include forgetfulness, impaired thinking and judgment, personality changes, agitation and loss of emotional control. Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease and inadequate blood flow to the brain can all cause dementia. Most types of dementia are irreversible.

Mediterranean diet: Traditional cuisine of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, shown to reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes, some cancers and dementia. On the menu: Plenty of fruits, vegetables and beans, along with olive oil, nuts, whole grains, seafood; moderate amounts of low-fat yogurt, low-fat cheese and poultry; small amounts of red meat and sweets; and wine, in moderation, with meals.

Repetitions: The number of movements you perform of an exercise in a row. For example, if you do 10 squats in a row, then you’ve done 10 repetitions, also called “reps.” Sets refer to the number of times you repeat a given exercise after a break. For example, if you do 10 squats, rest and then do 10 more squats, you’ve completed two sets of 10 reps each.

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