Holiday time in Iowa often means families gathering to share the time, remember years past and to create new memories. Mark Underwood, a neuroscience researcher, says this is also an excellent time to take note if someone you care about is starting to show signs of memory loss.

“The early signs of memory loss are just as important to address so they don’t become bigger signs of memory loss,” Underwood says. “If you’re losing your car keys now, that will result in further decline as you grow older, but if you address it while you’re young and capable, you’re going to do great favors for your brain and the rest of your body’s health, because the brain controls everything else too.”

Underwood says being around someone with memory problems or early stages of dementia can be very uncomfortable, especially if that person is the social butterfly. “Around the holidays, you don’t want to embarrass yourself or you don’t want to see anyone embarrassed,” Underwood says. “Certainly, we go from a point where memory loss is uncomfortable, but at some point in time, it becomes devastating. It becomes incapacitating. While you would want to remember everyone around the table, at some point in time, there’s always someone in the family who is having a hard time with that.”

Underwood says those past the age of 40 might have a few “senior moments” when they blank out over names or faces. He says, “Your brains probably are getting a little tired and as we age, it’s very difficult to keep up with all the facts and figures we have to deal with in our information society.” Underwood says mental exercises may be one of the best things you can do to address the underlying biochemical causes behind most memory loss.

“If you’re already an avid reader, pick up an instrument and learn how to play the flute,” Underwood says. “If you’re already into exercise, pick up a new sport that requires new hand-eye coordination. There are so many different ways to challenge the brain but the key is different. Do something different and as you do it you will strengthen your brain’s muscles as well.”

Underwood says researchers are learning more about what causes memory loss. He says they know brain neurons stop functioning when they absorb too much calcium, usually around age 40. He notes, it has nothing to do with how much milk you drink or calcium supplements, but more with a loss of proteins that help manage the calcium in the brain.