Well, if you are someone who is into the second half of your life, chances are you have noticed the occasional memory lapse. Simple things like phone numbers or the location of your keys slip your mind a little more often than they once did.
These ‘senior moments’, as they are somewhat endearingly called, are typically just an annoyance. They do not seriously affect a person’s ability to function on a daily basis, but they can sometimes cause anxiety. Often, people have an unsettling feeling that minor memory slip-ups could be the beginnings of something more serious.
One study shed some interesting light on the subject of age-related memory loss, and may lead to the possibility of reversing it.
Columbia University researchers examined the effects of a particular protein in the brains of humans and mice. They found that a deficiency in this protein in the hippocampus area was associated with age-related memory loss.
Their research showed that this forgetfulness is distinct from the more serious memory loss associated with dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease, and that the one is not a precursor to the other.
We have known for some time that Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by plaques within the brain, and these are not present in people with the more minor age-related memory loss. This study pinpointed what is happening when we experience those pesky senior moments.
It turns out levels of a particular protein (RbAp48) decline steadily in people as they age. This was found across the board in human subjects. A similar decrease was noted in the brains of mice – the older the mice, the less of this protein they had in their brains.
Further, when scientists reduced the amount of the protein in the brains of young mice, the mice experienced the same memory loss that occurs naturally in aging mice. When the protein levels were returned to normal, the memory did as well.
Perhaps most interestingly, when this protein was increased in the brains of aging mice, their memory improved dramatically.
This finding inspires hope that we could eventually use this information to come up with ways to reverse memory loss associated with aging. Whether the solution comes in the form of a pharmaceutical treatment or natural methods to increase production of this protein within the hippocampus, it will be profoundly helpful to understand the mechanism involved in this condition.
Research into this is ongoing, and more data will be necessary before any kind of treatment can be realized, but it certainly is promising to work with something concrete.
In the meantime, it is helpful just to know that normal age-related memory loss is physiologically different from dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease. At the very least, it can be a comfort to many older people who experience occasional ‘senior moments’. Although it is irritating to misplace your wallet or forget a postal code you’ve been using for years, it is not necessarily a harbinger of more upsetting symptoms coming your way.
It has been understood for some time that childhood experiences have lasting effects on our brains and mental health.
In past columns, I have discussed research showing the ways that childhood abuse changes the physiology of the brain, making it more sensitized to stress and leading to a higher likelihood of mental illness, such as depression or anxiety, later in life.
This understanding of the links between our early experiences and later mental health is expanding as new research is completed.
One study examining more than 1,100 teens in Ireland has shown that childhood trauma (defined here as physical assault or bullying) is predictive of psychotic experiences.
This study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, sought to determine whether childhood trauma was a potential cause of psychotic symptoms. Teens were initially assessed for both trauma and psychotic symptoms, then seen again at three and 12-month follow-ups.
Results showed exposure to childhood trauma did predict psychotic experiences in people who hadn’t had them before. They also found what is known as a dose-response relationship – meaning the more trauma there was, the more likely the psychotic experiences. Further, when trauma stopped, the psychotic experiences decreased significantly as well.
Although we have known for some time of a relationship between childhood trauma and psychotic experiences or psychosis, this is the first study giving direct evidence of a causal relationship, and showing that the relationship also continues when the trauma ceases.
We know a person is likely to get significantly better if they can get away from trauma. This places a renewed emphasis on the importance of preventing and intervening in instances of bullying, abuse, and other trauma that can so negatively affect children and teens.
Just as it is important for young people to protect their brains from injury by using helmets and caution in sporting activities – we also need to help them protect their brains from the real and lasting injuries that can be caused by extremely negative experiences.
We must continue to support parents, schools, and youth agencies in providing safe spaces for children to grow up protected from abuse, neglect and bullying. If we can do this, not only will there be fewer instances of mental illness, but also a more productive, higher functioning and happier population of adults.
Aren’t we all working out how to be as happy as we can be?
It seems the desire for happiness is a universal human experience. Of course how we define happiness and what makes us happy is different for everyone, but there is certainly no shortage of advice out there on how to achieve it.
I have written at least a couple of columns in the past few years about happiness with some tips for getting there, as well as a few pitfalls to avoid.
We all want to be happy, and there is a known connection between happiness and good health – both physical and mental.
One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences offers a new angle on the topic of happiness and its effects on our health.
In this study, researchers found an important distinction needs to be made between happiness and meaning in life. Happiness was defined in terms of being self-focused. We are happy when we can do what we want, when we want, and when we can have the things and experiences we desire.
Meaning was derived through the opposite impulses. Our lives generally derive meaning from focusing away from ourselves and giving in some way to the world. When we help someone in need or work toward a bigger cause, we feel our life has meaning – even when to do so involves inconvenience, or hinders us from achieving the superficial things we want.
Researchers in this study examined the differences between meaning and happiness and also looked at how the two affected people on a biological level. Study participants were rated for levels of happiness and meaning in their lives and then researchers looked at gene expression within each group.
Roughly 75 percent of study participants scored high for happiness, but low for meaning. Some scored high in both areas and some scored high for meaning and less high for happiness.
Interestingly, results found those who were happy but had little sense of meaning in their lives had the same gene expression patterns as those enduring chronic adversity. Pro-inflammatory genes are active and there is a decrease in genes involved in anti-viral response. Chronic inflammation is associated with several serious health concerns including heart disease and some cancers.
People who scored high for both happiness and meaning as well as those who scored higher for meaning and less high for happiness did not have the pro-inflammatory gene expression. Only those with a one-sided or shallow happiness showed the detrimental pro-inflammatory response.
What this study shows is the importance of balance in our lives. While there is nothing inherently unhealthy in the selfish pleasures that produce feelings of happiness, we seem to be healthiest when these are matched by having a sense of meaning in life. When we give of ourselves to help others or the world in some way, we are healthiest.
Finding this balance is, of course, one of the skills we all need to master in the course of our lives.
Photo information: Rainbow Alley, by Roy Henry Vickers ~ "One of my all-time joyous fishing trips was going there with my son, Wakas. I woke up in the morning and found he was not in bed, looked out the window in the morning sun and there he was at the end of the dock with his fishing rod. A happy vision that will be with me the rest of my life."
When people come to see me for the first time to discuss mental health issues they’ve been struggling with, it is usually after several years of symptoms that are now getting worse and harder to simply cope with on their own.
One of the most common coping strategies I hear about for many mental health issues – particularly anxiety and mood symptoms – is alcohol.
People start out thinking a drink or two will relax them or ‘take the edge off’. They think it will take away nerves, help them sleep, or elevate their mood. Unfortunately, this is not the case. In the vast majority of cases, the use of alcohol as a self-medicating strategy is not effective. In the rare case that it seems to help temporarily, it is just that – a temporary bandage that may provide a few hours of relief, but little more.
More unfortunate than its lack of effectiveness at treating psychological symptoms is the increased risk of alcohol dependence that comes from using it as a self-medicating strategy.
A new study from scientists at Johns Hopkins University found that those who self-medicate mood symptoms with alcohol are three times more likely to develop alcohol dependency than those who do not self-medicate with alcohol.
Data for the study came from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. This was conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and consisted of interviews with approximately 43,000 Americans. More than 4,000 of these were found to have mood symptoms but not alcohol dependence and these were asked whether they used alcohol to self-medicate their mood symptoms.
Using the results of the second survey, researchers evaluated whether subjects who self-medicated with alcohol were more likely to develop dependence than those who had not used it to self-medicate mood symptoms.
Those who had used alcohol to self-medicate were three times more likely to develop dependence than those who had not.
Researchers also wanted to know if those who both self-medicated and became dependent on alcohol were more likely to have persistent alcohol dependence. This was true. Those who had self-medicated were three times more likely to remain alcohol dependent as those who had not self-medicated.
Interestingly, this link held even for those who did get treatment for their mood disorder. It also held for those who didn’t meet the criteria for a full blown psychiatric condition – but who just had some mood symptoms and self-medicated.
This simply reinforces the truth that it is dangerous to use alcohol to help us feel better.
When a low mood or anxious feelings persist and are not related to specific life events, you should consider that you may be experiencing psychiatric symptoms. A few things you can do to try to help yourself are to keep a regular sleep/wake cycle, assess whether there are any stressful things you can limit from your life, and be sure to get regular exercise. Avoiding substances like caffeine and alcohol are also recommended. If your symptoms persist, speak with your doctor. Help is available.
More States of Mind articles
- Reducing dementia risk Oct 28
- Remember babyhood? Oct 21
- What not to say Oct 14
- Postpartum psychosis Oct 7
- Telomere test Sep 30
- Anxiety in children Sep 9
- Maternal thought habits Sep 2
- Cannabis and driving Aug 26
- Munchausen syndrome Aug 5
- Life satisfaction & outlook Jul 29
- Positive impressions of aging Jul 22
- Depression and anxiety Jul 8