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What Can You Do About Memory Loss?

As we get older, we often notice we’re not remembering things as easily as we once did. Sometimes that’s embarrassing, for instance when someone gently reminds you that they’ve heard that story before. But is it cause for a concern or a reason to talk to your doctor? Most of the time, no, but sometimes, yes. Here’s some information to help you decide when to do some self help and when to call your doctor.

Age associated memory impairment (AAMI) affects most healthy people over 50 and is NOT a disorder. Some memory skills decline with age. The most common normal memory impairments are forgetting the names of people we recently met or remembering where we put things. Other memory skills remain intact with normal aging. These include memory for faces, memory for past events, and memory for names of close friends and family.

Interestingly, it’s not your memory that’s declining when you walk around the house wondering where you left your keys. The thing that’s declined is your ability to effortlessly learn new information. When you do something like put your keys down, cells in your brain are activated. When certain cells are activated repeatedly or at the same time as other cells, memories are formed. As we age, the amount of brain activity needed to form a new memory increases, so if you’re thinking about something else when you put your keys down, that memory never gets formed. It’s not that you’ve forgotten where you put them, it’s that the activity didn’t activate your brain cells enough to build a strong memory.

The good news is that you can use some simple strategies to increase the likelihood of learning new information and forming a memory:

First, you can stimulate learning through paying more attention to what you do and thinking more actively about what you’re doing. When you put your keys down, say to yourself, “I put my keys in the drawer by the door.” Or say it out loud to somebody who’s with you. “Don’t let me forget I put the keys in this drawer.” Chances are good you’ll never need the reminder because just asking for it stimulated more brain activity. You can also take a mental picture. As you put your keys down, generate a visual image of the drawer in your head. When you park your car in a parking garage or large lot, take a moment to look at your surroundings before you go to your destination. Notice and take a mental picture of landmarks like plants, crosswalks, or signs. If there’s a numbered sign near your car, sat the number out loud. “I’m parked in section D3.”

If remembering new names is your problem, say the person’s name out loud after they say it. Instead of just, “Nice to meet you,” try, “Nice to meet you, Jean.” Repetition also helps. Try to find three opportunities to repeat a name. Introduce the person to someone else. Start a question with the person’s name. Say the name again when conversation ends. The more time your brain cells fire the pattern of the new name, the more likely a new memory of that name will form.

The older we get, the more memories we have and the more interesting things we have to think about. Maybe you don’t want to use a lot of energy thinking about your keys. In that case, set up and practice routines that will allow you to use your brain for other things. Pick a consistent location for frequently misplaced items like keys, phone and glasses. Always make a point of putting them there. If you forget to pay bills on time, schedule a specific day or days when you pay all your bills, carve out time to do it, and put it on the calendar.

Write things down instead of trying to remember them in your head. The need to write things down is a normal part of aging even if you never needed to do it before. Get a notebook (this works better when you write by hand). Every night before you go to bed, make a to-do list, so you don’t have to remember what you need to do the next day. If you think of something you need to do, but are in the middle of something else, jot the new thing in the notebook so you can finish what you’re doing and go back later to finish the new task. After a party, jot down the names of all the people you met. Shop with a list.

To slow the normal age-related decline in your ability to remember, exercise your mind. Read books and articles that make you think and avoid mindless media consumption. Play or learn to play challenging games like bridge, mah-jongg, chess, or harder crossword puzzles. Learn a new sport, hobby, or foreign language. If it’s hard and you feel a little foolish at first, that’s probably good. It means you are challenging your brain and making it work. Exercise your body. Physical exercise keeps blood flowing to your brain.

With normal AAMI, recognition memory tends to be fine. So if you forgot which floor you parked on in a parking garage and have to roam around for a while to find it, you will typically recognize landmarks when you finally do find the car. “That’s right. I had just gone around the corner when I found this spot.”

What are some signs that you should be more concerned about your memory changes? 

  • Repeatedly forgetting names of old friends, relatives, people you see every day.
  • Becoming disoriented while shopping or traveling on a familiar route.
  • Becoming confused when paying bills, calculating a tip, or dealing with household finances.
  • Finding something you misplaced and not having any idea how it got there.

If these memory lapses are happening frequently, contact your primary care doctor. Your doctor may perform some memory tests or refer you to a specialist for further evaluation. 

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