HealthStyle: You can help your memory
By David Gannon
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Perhaps you are noticing that it is becoming more difficult to remember things. More experiences that happened in your past are forgotten. Objects that you commonly use are misplaced. Where are those reading glasses? It feels like the gremlins are hiding them just to trick you.
How about your multitasking. You used to take pride in being able to think about and do many things at once. Now you get distracted by so many things you forget what you intended to do. You went into a room to get something but three other things captured your attention in the process. You can’t immediately recall the name of some familiar acquaintances. Some of these experiences are normal. Everybody is likely to forget parts of an experience as time passes. For example, you remember that you almost knew how to speak German at one point but now only know how to say “goodbye” and “hello.” And how did that computer software program work?
If this all sounds familiar, don’t diagnose yourself with dementia yet. Some people can experience temporary memory problems. Possible causes for temporary memory losses include depression, some medications, stress and anxiety, poor nutrition, infections, substance abuse, sleep deprivation, and a thyroid imbalance. There are also many degrees of memory loss and cognitive impairment and many causes for mild memory loss. Some memory changes happen to everybody as we get older. The brain’s volume peaks at age 20 and gradually begins to decline. It may not be noticeable until you reach your 40s or 50s. Just as your computer processor takes longer to store and retrieve information your brain may slow somewhat as a part of this aging process. But unlike your computer, there is no spinning circle, progress bar, or hour glass to show what is happening.
Some types of memory are retained and improve while others are reduced with age. Working memory or the use of recently acquired information to complete a task and general information processing tends to slow as you get older. But older adults seem to outperform younger adults in general knowledge acquired from life experience. Memory problems of most people seem to involve encoding, consolidation and retrieving information and involves several parts of the brain. Encoding is the organization of information for storage. Distraction seems to interfere primarily with the encoding of data. If encoding isn’t done correctly, it will be more difficult to retrieve learned data. Consolidation involves processing and packaging information in order to store it in certain areas of the brain. Retrieval is the calling on the stored information when it is needed. Slower information processing seems to reduce the speed of retrieval of the already stored information. Executive function represents planning and organizing and thinking flexibly and can be affected as person gets older. Implicit learning, learning from an experience without conscious effort, and memory for ideas, meanings and concepts seem to be retained as most people get older
There is a continuum of memory changes. Everybody experiences some loss, but mild cognitive impairment is a term for more serious memory problems. Symptoms of MCI include difficulty following a conversation, misplacing many items you use routinely, and forgetting the sequence of steps needed to complete a complex task. Dementia is an even more significant form of progressive cognitive loss and has several stages. Dementia can involve memory but also other brain functions and interferes with daily living. Symptoms of early dementia may include the inability to learn and retain new information, trouble with names of familiar objects, confusion with tasks that once came easily, getting lost in familiar places, and forgetting how something works. You may not experience memory problems even as you age but you should discuss any memory concerns with your physician to rule out all possible causes.
The good news is that there are things that you can do to improve mild memory difficulties and also strategies you can use to adapt. It is important to recognize that your brain benefits from many of the same things that represent good physical and mental health.
- Exercise to increase oxygen to the brain and reduce the risk of physical disorders that affect memory.
- Eat healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables to fuel the brain and limit calories and saturated fats.
- Do relaxation exercises such as meditation to reduce stress, help build connections between brain cells, and to increase the thickness of the cerebral cortex.
- Challenge your brain by doing something new and different such as puzzles, a new card game or learning a new language. Play games that involve analysis and strategies.
- Find time to be with friends for socialization, fun, and brain stimulation. Conversation keeps the brain working.
- Go to bed at a reasonable time and get up in the morning to give the brain adequate rest and to help consolidate memory.
In addition to stimulating your brain you can also use tools to accommodate the minor changes that occur for everyone. These tools include:
- Write down the steps involved in completing a complex task.
- Carry a small notepad to record things you are prone to forget.
- Make checklists each day and put them in a conspicuous location.
- Repeat information to yourself that you want to retain.
- Use memory tricks to connect information such as icons or objects.
- Use recording devices such as digital recorders to record data when you are driving or can’t take notes.
- Put more effort into focusing and paying attention to one thing at a time instead of trying to do all things at once.
- Post notes for yourself in places where you will see them.
- Use planners and mobile phones to store the information that you may need.
Memory changes for most people will be minor and can be easily remedied with some easily implemented health practices and memory tools.
David Gannon, Ph.D., Psychological and Family Consultants, Canton, Ohio.