Trying to Remember
I used to think memory lapses were for the hopelessly disorganized. Me, I have systems: My keys go in the key jar. A compulsive list maker, I never come home from the supermarket without the items I intended to buy. So imagine my consternation when I hit my mid-40s and found it now takes three trips between my home office and bedroom before I remember why I set out on the journey (oh yes-to retrieve the to-do list). More bothersome are the breakdowns involving words-after all, I make my living as a writer. "Could you turn off the sink?" I call to my sweetheart, Mike, when I want him to turn off the stove.
A lot of us, faced with these glitches, worry that Alzheimer's is just around the corner. Experts are reassuring: Memory lapses, they tell us, are part of the normal wear and tear that goes along with middle age. "I'm in my early 50s and I study memory, but I can no longer perform well on the memory tests we give our undergraduate students," confesses Michael Rugg, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine.
No one is exactly sure why memory goes downhill-it may be we lose brain cells as we age and/or the remaining cells don't communicate with one another as effectively. But the result is well known: mental gaffes, ranging from embarrassing to inconvenient. "One night, my son and I drove out in the rain to go to a college recruitment fair," says Maureen Marshall-Doss, 42, a teacher's assistant in Indianapolis. The pair arrived at the school and found it deserted. It turned out Marshall-Doss had gotten the days mixed up; the event had been on Tuesday, not Thursday. "Luckily, my son's only a sophomore, so we have time to look for colleges," she says, laughing.
Multitasking makes it hard to commit things to memory in the first place. "Attention is the gateway to retention," says Barry Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of neurology and cognitive science at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore. "If the information doesn't get in to begin with, forget trying to save it and access it later."
If your day is filled with multiple activities, don't rely on your recall skills. The old proverb "The worst pencil is better than the best memory" is still true, says Dr. Gordon. So make lists and take notes. And ask others to do the same. "I tell my kids that if they really want me to do something, they should write it on an index card and put it in my purse," says Debbie Minnick, 41, a banker in Naples, Florida. "Otherwise, I'll forget it 40 minutes into my workday."
Interestingly, people tend to blame age, rather than busyness, for their slips-and then may think their memory is worse than it really is. "As we get older, we notice lapses we wouldn't have before," says Rugg.
Take the common lapse of forgetting someone's name. It happens to everybody, young and old. "Names are difficult to handle because they're abstract," says Dr. Gordon. The person's face and his name aren't logical ideas for the brain to link together.
And the older we get, the more data we have to sort through. Some mental lapses are nothing but congestion, says Dr. Gordon, who compares the middle-aged brain to a bridge at rush hour: "When you have too many cars and too few lanes, nothing can move." One of the reasons we blank on names, he explains, is that we know too many of them.
Anxiety makes it worse, by essentially creating more traffic. "That's why the name often pops into your mind later," says Dr. Gordon, "when the mental traffic has died down."
Could it be an illness?
Certain medical problems can interfere with your ability to recall, notes Martin Goldstein, M.D., director of the division of cognitive neurology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. If you're struggling, see a doctor to rule out such possible causes as:
Mood disorders affect attention and concentration, so you don't form strong enough memories to start with.
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
Hypertension can cut down on blood flow to the brain.
Hypothyroidism (too little of the hormone) slows down information processing; hyperthyroidism (too much) can cause distracting physical sensations, which make it hard to concentrate.
Even a mild blow to the head can lead to memory problems later on.
Fluctuations in blood sugar interfere with attention.
DRUG SIDE EFFECTS
Sleeping pills, antihistamines, and antianxiety medications are some culprits.
Why you forget some things (and not others)
Different kinds of memory are created and stored in different parts of the brain and respond differently to aging. For example:
The kind that you use to recall the name of a restaurant or the plot of a movie you saw a week ago. It starts to decline in your early 40s.
The type that gives you the ability to collect and retain new facts and figures. It holds up pretty well, which is why you know what a blog is but forget your dentist's address.
The kind we draw on for tasks we do automatically, such as driving a car or playing the piano. This is also fairly resilient-so even if you can't think of your best friend's phone number, you can press the right keys on the telephone pad.
Building a better brain
With training, people have improved their mental agility after just two weeks, says Gary Small, M.D., director of the Memory Clinic at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. These strategies can help:
STRETCH YOUR THINKING
Crossword puzzles have long been touted as a mental strengthener. But if crosswords aren't your thing, try Sudoku, the new number puzzle (found at sudoku.com and in many newspapers). Or sign up for a class in a subject new to you.
Exercise increases blood flow, which helps nourish brain tissue. It also helps prevent or control other health conditions that can interfere with memory.
Yes, fish really does seem to be brain food-as do nuts and olive oil. All these foods contain omega-3 fatty acids, which may slow down brain aging. Antioxidants-found in brightly coloured fruits, vegetables, and green tea-also protect brain cells. Coffee boosts attention and alertness, which can enhance learning. But stop after a cup or two: Too much has the opposite effect.
When you need to remember something specific, such as where you parked the car, make associations. The more vivid, the better: If you left the car at level 3, section C in the parking garage, imagine a billboard flashing "3C" in neon lights.
Try whatever works for you-yoga, gardening, walking. Not only does tension distract you, making it hard to learn and remember things, but it also takes a direct toll on the brain. "In studies, humans injected with stress hormones can't learn or remember," says Dr. Small.
Test your memory
1. Study these three words:
2. Do something else for five minutes: Read another article in this magazine, check your e-mail, or chat with a family member. After exactly five minutes, see how many words you remember.
What your score means
Most people come up with at least two words, often all three. Recalling one or none may indicate a problem (or it could just be distraction). If you were taking the test at a memory centre, the biggest concern would be if you didn't even remember you'd been asked to memorize something, says Dr. Barry Gordon. No diagnosis can be made from just one question, but doctors use the "three-word test" as a quick way to check for a disorder that needs further examination.
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