Psychologically Speaking: Memory Loss

While people often don't have a problem remembering a face, remembering a name is much more difficult.

The other day I found myself talking with someone I've known for years and for a brief moment I couldn't remember her name. How could that be I wondered? Was this just a senior moment or was this the beginning of a more serious memory problem? Now I readily admit that I occasionally walk into a room and forget just why I went there and, like others, can search for my cellphone, sunglasses or car keys, often only to discover that they are in my hand, pocket or even on my head. I remember, when pregnancy and new-motherhood, with its attendant sleep deprivation, led to memory loss and other joys, telling my colleagues that I should set myself up for neuropsychological testing. Fortunately, as my children aged, my memory improved and my children would joke that I never forget a thing. That said, with none of us getting any younger, let's look at some tricks for enhancing memory. Memory consists of three major components: retention, storage and retrieval. While people often don't have a problem remembering a face, remembering a name is much more difficult. We can learn lots from watching politicians. To remember Lisa, the lady you've just met, make sure her name gets into storage by making it salient. Create a story about her or give yourself a cue and you'll more likely remember her name. "Lovely or Lively Lisa" or Lisa in Lavender helps you link her name and a fact about her when you next see her again. Of course, when you get introduced, if you say, "Hi Lisa," repeating her name immediately after she told you, you'll also file her name under "L" and you'll potentially send this information into long-term storage. Now where are your reading glasses? If you habitually keep them in one spot, you'll find them more easily the next time you misplace them. Now if you can visualize the glasses, putting them down in the room and can relay a story about them to yourself (I last read that article in the magazine and put my glasses down on the table when I went to check the pie, so they must be on the table), you'll be able to locate them even faster. Much of the time we are distracted, multitask or don't concentrate on cues relevant for later retrieval of information. This is especially true for meaningless material. Studies have suggested that to make information meaningful, we do best remembering no more than 7 ± 2 bits of information. That is why it is much easier to remember your seven-digit phone number than a 10-digit cellphone number unless you find ways to link the numbers together. Remember the card game "memory" or "concentration"? Cards are face down and you have to find a match to the card you turn face up. Kids are so much better at playing this game than adults because they pay attention to and store the details we often ignore. Here are a few additional ways to enhance your memory: Declutter your life. It is a lot easier to remember information or retrieve things when you can actually locate them. Think of getting rid of extraneous things in your home, decluttering paperwork and putting relationships in order and you may find yourself more focused, less distracted and more organized. Reduce stress and learn to relax. The more uptight you are, the less easy it is to remember something as stress in itself distracts. Take a few deep breaths and imagine feeling calm and you might be surprised to discover when you lighten up you'll be able to remember something with greater ease. Have a good belly laugh and you may discover you'll remember even more or that you don't even care. Focus on the positive, yet be realistic. Recognize that with age you will have a poorer memory or be slower at performing a task. This does not mean that you are becoming like your mother (if that is your fear) or that you'll lose your job because you can't perform. You may need to talk with someone who can help you put this into perspective if you're concerned. Visualize events. It is much easier to remember something if you create a story to go with the event. Many of us find that hearing information is not nearly as helpful as seeing it as well. Say it out loud and that will help too. Writing, making lists and rehearsing all help consolidate memories. Exercise both your brain and your body. We have much to learn about the mind-body connection but research suggests that if you don't use something, you'll lose it. An active body and a stimulated mind help keep you young and motivated, decrease depression and reduce passivity. Play Scrabble, bridge, do the crossword puzzle, get involved in a hobby, learn a new language and go explore a new neighborhood. Remember that while familiarity, routine and rituals bring comfort, it is important to stretch beyond your comfort zone. Look after your health. Your body is like a car. If you don't put the right fuel in it or run it on empty, it won't work well. Eat well, look after your health and make sure that you get enough quality sleep, physical exercise and rest. Balance contributes to a better quality of life. Drugs and alcohol can negatively impact memory. Socialize. Staying connected with others is essential for keeping active. Check out community events and meet new people. Be aware of multitasking, not paying attention, and being distracted. It may be a tremendous challenge to work your memory while not overworking other areas, but it can be done. Protect your head. Seat belts and helmets are a must to prevent head injuries. Use cuing as a strategy to remember. If you left the house with four things (and count them), you need to return with the same four. If you talk on the phone, take notes so you can "see" the conversation later. Scan the alphabet to remember a name, memorize your grocery list by store layout, create a story to help you remember or leave something and return to it later when another cue may help. Pair events. Take your pills when you brush your teeth and set your timer to remember to take out the cake. While everyone forgets, when memory problems become associated with confusion over daily routines, when one has complete loss of memory for an event or one sees language changes, erratic behavior or a loss of skills, see a specialist. Teaching better memory skills won't necessarily prevent disease, but it can help you feel better and psychologically speaking, that can be worth a lot. The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana. [email protected]