Let’s quickly look at what memory essentially is: The process of learning info, storing it and then having the ability to recall it when you need it (whether to solve problems, tell stories or save yourself on the witness stand).
Learning begins with those power connections in your brain: neurons firing messages to one another. The spaces between neurons (synapses) determine your ability to process info. As you use your brain cells, it strengthens how your cells talk to one another. The more you use the synapses, the stronger they get and more they proliferate. That’s why you may have strong neural pathways for your family history or weaker ones for eighties music trivia.
This gives you some insight into how you remember things. If something’s exciting to you, you’ll learn it faster, training your synapses to make strong connections. But if the info seems boring, you can still learn and build these connections with repeated use.
Problems arise when synapses lie dormant: The less you use certain connections, the greater chance they have of falling into disrepair (like losing fluency in a foreign language if you don’t use it for a long time). Technically, we actually learn by weakening underutilized synapses and repairing and strengthening the synapses we commonly use. So if you cook a lot and enjoy it, you’ll learn the recipes by heart—and fast, because it’s enjoyable. You build a large connecting wire, which allows for faster flow of info.
By contrast, lesser-used pathways fall into disrepair, so you lose or disable those connections. If you haven’t exercised your 1970s TV trivia synapses in a long time, you’re not going to remember the name of the kid who played Bobby on “The Brady Bunch. “
To keep your memory functioning at optimum power, you’ll need to focus on three aspects of your biology.
Your brain has 100 billion nerve cells, and each cell receives one hundred messages per second. In the time it takes to read this sentence, your cells have been doing more processing than the IRS’s computer server in April!
Your neurons look like mops with shaggy strings that reach out to one another, while the handles act like cables that carry the info. These neurons talk to each other at a rapid rate. The hippocampus (shaped like a seahorse and buried in your brain) is the main memory driver. The other two memory-related areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, which controls the executive function of your brain. Also, the cerebellum, which controls balance.
Your hippocampus processes info before it’s stored. It works best when you’re emotionally interested in the material or alert when you’re learning about it. This is one reason why coffee can aid memory. It seems to increase alertness the first time you learn something, which increases the chance you’ll deposit it in the long-term memory bank.
But for the purposes of aging, we’re mostly concerned about what happens to the power lines within your brain. So flip on your hippocampus, or grab a cup of Joe and remember this: There are protein fragments in your brain—beta-amyloid—and they’re responsible for gunking up your power lines like overgrown vegetation. They’re likely causing Alzheimer’s. The primary defect in Alzheimer’s affects the input and output power lines of the hippocampus. Memory starts to fade.
The other physiological sign of Alzheimer’s is the buildup of “neurofibrillary tangles.” They’re insoluble twisted fibers that build inside neurons, like power lines getting crossed up and sending energy to the wrong location. These tangles influence intelligence. Now, a downed branch here or there won’t do much to disrupt the energy flow through your whole city, but what happens when a lot of branches fall on the same part of the grid? You’re out of commission.
In general, genes control how much beta-amyloid you have. But your genes don’t have complete control. You can alter the amount of gunk you have gooping up and weighing down your power lines by altering the expression of one of your genes, like the Apo E gene.
Apo E protein acts like the power crew that removes branches and sap from power lines after a storm. It sweeps through and removes the beta-amyloid so your synapses can keep functioning. Whenever we create new synapses to help our brain improve itself, some of this beta-amyloid remains behind, and the Apo E workers clear the gunk to ensure a clean connection.
Local Apo E4
One group in the union, however, local Apo E4, sabotages the effort to restore power and even gunks up the power lines further. An elevated level of E4 protein is correlated with a higher Alzheimer’s incidence. Fortunately, there are things you can do to turn down the activity of the E4 gene and allow the rest of the Apo E team to clear your power lines. Eating turmeric, which is found in Indian foods, seems to reduce expression of the E4 gene (India has a relatively low Alzheimer’s incidence, by the way). Exercise has a similar effect.