Memory Loss

Dec 18, 2008 by

Memory LossThere is a real, qualitative distinction between the sort of memory loss that accompanies normal aging and that which comes as a symptom of one of several diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Huntington’s. We should keep in mind that memory loss is common among almost all individuals as we grow older, and not be alarmed when certain memories begin to fade. Everyone occasionally forgets things, especially as we grow older and our faculties of learning and retaining information become less flexible. However, with degenerative diseases like those above, memory loss is progressive and gets worse over time. To put this in perspective, with normal memory loss you may forget where you put your keys; people experiencing progressive loss associated with dementia may forget not only where they put their keys, but also how to drive and even what car keys are used for!

Memory loss can also occur as a symptom of traumatic head injuries such as concussion. In post-concussion syndrome, a person is more likely to have trouble forming short term memories and retaining information they just learned, rather than losing long-term memories. Concussions can also impair a person’s capacity for prospective memory, or planning ahead and remembering do something in the near future such as show up for an upcoming appointment.

It should come as no surprise that the field of memory has spawned a wide selection of medical studies. Flip through almost any current journal and you’re sure to find at least one article on memory loss. Some such studies have revealed interesting trends in both cross-sectional and longitudinal terms. First, our ability to encode new memories of events or facts shows a marked decline as we age, as does what’s known in cognitive psychology as our “working memory.” Working, or short term, memory is the system where your brain temporarily stores new information. Your short term memory can retain about five to nine discreet pieces of information before it has to make a decision to either convert the information to long-term memory or discard it. One of the reasons we forget is simply that we haven’t made an effort to convert a piece of information— a name, event or what have you— from short-term to long term memory.

There are many distinct kinds of memory, some of which are more prone to attrition through normal aging. For instance, although a healthy person will rarely forget things in their autobiographical memory—the part of memory devoted to recording your specific life experiences—they may start to have trouble forming new semantic memories. Semantic, or factual, memory is defined as the memory of meanings, words, and factual information about the world independent of your own personal experience. Knowledge of the order of elements in the periodic table, or celebrity trivia, for instance, is the province of semantic memory. Even older adults with a good semantic memory might still have trouble remembering the source of specific information, even when they are able to remember the information itself. This signals a potential difficulty in our ability to bind series of information together as we age.

That said, there is also ample evidence that certain daily routines, along with some herbal products, are able to slow the natural course of memory loss. It may be helpful to think of memory loss not as a process in which your brain loses information, but rather as one where it becomes harder for your brain to retrieve information. In other words, the information is still there somewhere, you just might have to re-organize your patterns of thinking in order to find it!

Organizing your outer life can be one of the most effective ways to organize your mental life: keep everyday items that you use frequently (like your car keys, glasses, or phone) in a logical, easy-to-remember place. Make use of day planners, calendars and notepads to write down important events and other things you don’t want to forget. (This can be a lifesaver for people suffering from impaired short-term memory due to concussion, as well.)

There are also numerous methods for training your memory to be more responsive and flexible. It may sound obvious, but paying attention to something you want to remember is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to retain the information— as responsible students will attest, paying attention in class really does help on the final exam!

Challenge yourself: just as students struggling to keep up with exams use certain memory-building exercises, puzzles and mental activities can help aging adults keep their minds sharp. Stretch your mind by doing puzzles such as word games, learning new activities, and reading widely. Exercising your mind helps preserve the connections between your neurons, and also builds new connections between neurons. The more neuronal connections you have, the more easily your brain will be able to encode and retrieve new information.

Go easy on yourself: trust that you do have a good memory and that you can improve it using these practices. Too often, people who are convinced they have a bad memory make it a self-fulfilling prophecy by neglecting to train their minds and not paying attention to the things they should remember. Studies have shown that confidence in your mental abilities actually improves brain chemistry. Also, cultivating a calm, equitable attitude when learning a new skill or piece of information can work wonders to aid learning and memory retention.

You can also try out clinically-proven brain enhancers– enzymes like acetyl L-carnitine, memory-supporting herbs, and even simple dietary supplements like fish oils— which work just as effectively for older men and women as they do for those on college campuses. Simply put, memory loss is a fact of life. But there’s no reason we have to take that fact lying down.

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