While one could easily dismiss this as a collective “senior moment,” society is facing something never experienced before: a non-stop assault on the senses brought on by rivers of data, a proliferation of media and advertising, copious multitasking, plus a growing reliance on digital devices with memory.
- Age – Scientists note that average scores on memory tests decline steadily after age 25. By midlife, memory erosion accelerates, with humans losing on average 1% of brain volume each year. And there’s growing evidence that cellphones, calculators, speed-dialing, GPS and other memory-saving aids have reduced the need for mental acuity, causing the brain to deteriorate at a faster pace than ever before.
- Gender – According to a new study of almost 2,000 people in their 70s and 80s, reported by The New York Times in September 2010, men develop mild cognitive impairment earlier and at higher rates than women. Besides men, subjects found to be at higher risk for mild cognitive impairment included those who had never been married, those with less than nine years of schooling and those carrying the ApoE4 gene, which is a risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer’s.
- Multitasking – Research by psychologist Denise Park at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana shows that adults who multitask frequently have more memory complaints than their parents in their 70s.
- Brain games – With memory lapses on the upswing, the brain fitness business is booming. Nintendo has sold 17.4 million units worldwide of its über-popular Brain Age videogame for the DS player, and another 13.7 million copies of Brain Age 2. Both games were inspired by Tohoku University Professor Dr. Ryuta Kawashima’s work in neurosciences. “There’s more and more evidence that exercise staves off memory loss,” notes Dr. Daniel Press, neurologist at Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “In some ways, exercise is as good as any intervention we have in terms of helping people with mild memory loss from getting worse.”
- Brain training – National Institutes of Health research shows that older adults with mild memory impairment can benefit from cognitive training, although not necessarily in areas reliant on memorization. San Francisco-based vibrantBrains, which calls itself “A Health Club for Your Brain,” lets participants work on such skills as memory, reasoning, visual scanning, word recall and quantitative facility using games and exercises. Lifespan reports that Americans will spend $80 million this year on brain exercise products, compared to just $2 million in 2005.
- Memory drugs – For some, these memory aids don’t go far enough. A growing number of people are using prescription drugs like Ritalin — which was designed to treat hyperactive children — to boost alertness and brain power. Up to a fifth of adults, including college students and shift workers, may be using these types of cognitive enhancers, a Nature poll of 1,400 consumers found. And the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs is spreading to an ever younger generation. According to University of Cambridge Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology Barbara Sahakian, 17% of students at some U.S. universities already admit to using Ritalin.
- Future technology – Looming on the horizon are far more promising drug discoveries. The biotech industry is developing new therapies that can cure such diseases as Alzheimer’s — treatments that are bound to lead to the world’s first “lifestyle” drugs that deal with forgetfulness. Pointing to a future where memory will be fully “customizable,” researchers in Brooklyn, N.Y. recently reached a major milestone with the ability to erase certain memories using an experimental drug delivered to areas of the brain that hold specific types of memory, such as emotional associations, spatial knowledge or motor skills.
This type of biotech weaponry will be a welcome addition to the current arsenal used to combat the growing decline in memory retention. We’ve dubbed this trend in wonder drugs “Memory Protection” — because much like computers, which require memory protection to prevent crashes, human beings are increasingly prone to “memory leaks,” as techies call PC errors.
The memory protection market could produce the biggest lifestyle drug yet, because who wouldn’t want to stroll down memory lane faster?