It’s on our minds-how can we stay sharp and ward off memory loss? Nervous about ageing and especially Alzheimer’s disease, I’ve started to wonder what kind of memory is normal at any stage of life! Never before have people been so aware of their memories. A huge industry has sprung up around people’s fears, hopes; and new strategies are out that might just prevent brain strain.
The good news is that we understand much better than we used to; how memory operates within the brain and how we can strengthen it throughout our lives. The bad news is that the so-called quick cures are pretty much useless.
There is really nothing out there that can give you a super –human memory or even prevent you from forgetting where you put your keys.
What constitutes a normal memory is extremely variable. Part of it is genetic. I had a politician friend, who astonished me by routinely meeting his constituents and remembered names and lives of everyone.
You are either born with that or you are not. At the opposite extreme there is an aunt who can’t recall the names of her own children let alone the relatives who revolve around her quite often. Her family is known to have memory loss at an early age.
Although we have a lot to learn about how we can augment our memory, it is very clear what we can do to destroy it. These include:
♦ Poor sleep and stress. Research suggests that six hours of sleep per night will impair memory for most people; eight hours promote optimum function.
♦ Lack of physical exercise is bad for memory formation. Aerobic exercise seems to raise levels of nerve growth factor, which plays a key role in maintaining brain elasticity.
♦ Alcoholism is next in line. People who drink heavily (depleting their vitamin B1 levels) will have problems with short term memory and eventually their long term memory, creating blanks where once there were recollections.
♦ Smoking, which limits blood flow to the brain, has adverse effects on memory as it does on just about everything else.
♦ Untreated diabetes, high blood pressure, poor kidney function and meningitis all lower memory function.
Courses and books offering memory improvement strategies abound, and though some may help slightly, many only waste your time and money. Mega Memory System, a series of CDs and tapes advertised on line and on television, promises to help anyone to achieve a photographic memory in just a few days!
This was disqualified by the US Federal Trade Commission declaring that Mega Memory System would not do such a thing and demanded that its developer stop making false claims about his products.
The Memory Solution, by Julian Whitaker, MD, proposes that one can boost memory by taking B-complex vitamins, choline, folic acid, vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin A, beta-caratone and coenzymeQ10.
GRAHAM McDOUGALL, PHD, ASSOCIATE professor at the University of Texas, is working on what he calls the Senior-WISE Project. He proposes that using four techniques together can increase memory. These are:
♦ Strategy training, in which you do what seems to be common sense, writing lists, putting things out so that you’ll remember them later, and connecting what you want to remember with what you already know.
♦ Confidence training, aimed particularly at older people who have bad perceptions of their own memories .Here you learn to eliminate negative beliefs about your memory that may have adversely affected it.
♦ Health promotion: understanding how depression, sleep irregularities and medications may influence memory.
♦ A programme of stress-reduction and relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing and tense-and-release techniques because anxiety can block memory recall efficacy.
Even if one avoids all the pitfalls of memory loss and lives a healthy, intellectually challenging life, at some point the mind will begin to falter.
The most common complaints among older people-indeed across the board-are forgetting the names of friends or where you’ve put your glasses, and finding you can’t recall a Pin or phone number But what of deeper memory loss? This is the domain of greatest mystery.
Mental practice can help you to improve cognitive function, but those profound memories that give us the feeling of substance in our lives are much less likely to respond to self-improvement techniques, they are simply who we are!