The Trouble With Memory

Recently I was loading groceries into my car when a couple drove up and asked where they could find the Middle School. Perhaps because I was slightly distracted by my ambition to get my stuff home and tucked away, I cheerfully gave them directions to the local elementary school. It wasn’t until I drove up a hill near my home and spotted the local junior high that the little light bulb over my head finally flickered on. Oh, yes, junior high – middle school (derp!).

It was embarrassing enough that I had steered that poor couple wrong, but the incident also set off a chain of thought that people around my age (62 years) start obsessing about. Is this the early signs of Alzheimer’s? Probably not, but it’s hard not to have that worry pop up from time to time when minor faux pas like the above occur.

But how worried should we really be when memory failures happen? When you are young, memory failures happen but it’s easy to brush them off. Not so much as you begin aging or watch your parents age and witness the devastating effects of memory loss. My father played the piano and could perform a number of pieces pretty much from memory. However as he got past his seventies and into his eighties, an ominous change came over his playing. He would start off but then begin faltering. After hesitating, he would start the piece over again, sometimes several times in succession. Finally he quit playing altogether. Even with sheet music in front of him, he kept losing track of where he was.

True dementia involves significant deficits which interfere with your ability to function at work or at home. Not all dementias are Alzheimers. There are a variety of conditions which produce similar symptoms. Some are treatable. Others are not. Reading these lists can often be alarming but a simple rule of thumb to remember is this: if you forget where you laid your car keys, that’s plain absentmindedness. But if you have your car keys in hand and can’t remember what they are for, then you definitely have a problem.

In my father’s case, short term memory had taken a hit. Whether this was Alzheimers (he was never diagnosed) or the result of a series of small strokes, is hard to say but the terrible effects on his ability to recall musical pieces or follow sheet music like he used to, clearly showed. In my own case, failing to recall that ‘middle school’ meant the junior high, is more likely due to distraction than to cognitive decline.

So what to do? The Internet is filled with sites advising how to improve your memory and maintain it well into old age. Some of it is obvious snake oil but some sites offer common sense advice that most of us know but don’t always put into practice.

There are several things that stick out. The first is to stop multitasking. Let’s face it. We can’t give 100 percent of our attention to five things at the same time. If you want to do a task well or just keep track of things better, you have to cut back and focus your attention on one or two tasks at a time. You can devote more time to the tasks, do them better and not trip yourself up trying to keep track of too many things.

Another is simply getting enough sleep. It’s easy to underestimate how badly our mental functioning is affected when we don’t get enough sleep. Our ability to focus on tasks, think clearly and most important consolidate memories of events during the day take a major hit when we don’t get enough sleep.

A lot of things conspire to interfere with getting a restful sleep. Certain types of food and drink can interfere with a good night’s rest. Also exercising vigorously before bedtime can cause issues, revving our bodies up for more activity instead of winding down for the night. Bright light can interfere with the body’s sleep rhythms. The introduction of electric lights and later TV and computer screens have disturbed our natural sleep cycle which depends on a regular pattern of light followed by darkness. Outside lights such as street lights, neon lights, or even the headlights of cars passing by can all have a disruptive effect on our sleep.

Last but definitely not least is the importance of social contacts. Having friends, attending social functions (either family related or otherwise). Volunteering for community service or helping out with church or other functions all provide opportunities for interactions both social and physical. Scientists aren’t yet sure of the dynamics behind social interactions and how they reduce cognitive decline but there is clearly a correlation. Interacting with others requires using your brain for social skills. Exercise promotes better circulation for the brain. Volunteering creates a sense of purpose and feeling of achievement that your efforts can actually make a difference for others. Each feeds into the other and helps contribute to a healthier old age. Like a muscle, the brain just needs to be frequently exercised to stay in good shape. Use it or lose it!

So don’t fret about forgetting where the car keys are. Just be happy you can remember what they’re for!