Memory lapses are normal, but there are skills you can use to make them less frequent
By Wendy Haaf
You stand in the kitchen, thinking: I came here to do something—but what? Or you pay for two hours of parking but forget to return in time to feed the meter. We all have these little memory slips, but when they begin to happen a little more frequently around the mid-century mark, it’s natural to be concerned. Could the culprit be something more ominous than ordinary age-related changes in brain function? And is there anything you can do to prevent such irritating lapses?
“A lot of these things are quite normal,” says Heather Palmer, the national director of the Cognitive Well-Being Program at Amica Senior Lifestyles retirement communities, “and we actually have control over a lot of it.” By learning a bit about what’s going on in your grey matter and building on qualities that either remain the same or grow stronger with age, you can avoid fumbling through life like an absent-minded professor.
Before we delve into how to do that, here’s a word about a few other fixable memory problems that don’t fall into these categories but can nonetheless cause a sudden memory decline.
The first thing Palmer encourages people to do if they’re noticing new cognitive difficulties is to ask if one of three factors could be at play: pain, fatigue, or stress (grief and worry fall under this last heading). If so, “you can peel back the onion and deal with one at a time. Let’s get your pain under control,” she says. “Let’s manage your sleep. Now let’s figure out what your stresses and worries are and address those, as well. Usually people bounce right back cognitively when those are the sources of the problem—and they often are. People grossly underestimate the impact pain and fatigue have on us.” Stress is such a common cause of reversible memory problems that programs for coping with normal age-related cognitive changes, such as a program offered by Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto, often incorporate instruction in simple stress reduction techniques, such as pausing regularly throughout the day to take a few deep breaths.
Another tip Palmer suggests for pinpointing possible explanations for memory changes is to document the memory mistakes you make over the course of a few days—not just the type but such details as time of day. Then look for a pattern. For example, if errors happen mostly at night, when you’re tired, you can focus your memory-supporting efforts on that portion of your day.
Understanding the aging memory.
While some aspects of memory diminish as we get older, “it’s not a simple story of decline,” says Susan Vandermorris, a clinical neuropsychologist and the director of training of the Neuropsychology and Cognitive Health Program at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto. “Some aspects of memory improve with age and some stay around the same.” Those that improve include procedural memory (for example, for things we do automatically, such as dressing and driving a car) and semantic memory (vocabulary and facts about geography come under this heading). “So long as we’re engaged with new learning, we continue to accumulate new knowledge and memories in this way,” Vandermorris says. “So things like financial knowledge, for example, tend to increase steadily as we get older.” (While not strictly a function of memory, a facility for putting together disparate bits of information, seeing the big picture, and wisdom also tend to improve with age.)
On the other hand, our recent memory (for events that have occurred within the last few minutes to days), prospective memory (for things we intend to do in the future, such as taking medications on time), and associative memory (connections between faces and names, for example, as well as where you left your keys) take a hit in later life. And while it’s not a type of memory, our ability to pay attention and concentrate becomes somewhat weaker (for example, making it harder to ignore extraneous information, block out background noise, and multi-task). And because the first step in filing a memory away hinges on attention, diminished attention inevitably has an impact on our ability to retrieve a piece of information: if you’re not paying sufficient attention, the file never makes it into the cabinet in the first place. This is why, if you’re distracted while trying to read your book before bed, you’ll probably have to go back several pages and start over the next day, and why you can’t recall someone’s name five minutes after being introduced if you were too focused on following the conversation.
Using the analogy of a filing cabinet or computer is a useful way to think about memory. Saving a new piece of information to your cabinet or hard drive involves three stages. “The first stage is called ‘encoding’—that’s the input stage,” explains Christina Gojmerac, a neuropsychologist with the Seniors Mental Health Program and Clinical Neuropsychology Service at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton (ON), and an assistant professor in the psychiatry and behavioural sciences department at McMaster University. “The second stage is storage and the third is retrieval.”
Encoding errors occur more commonly once we reach age 55. By contrast, storage problems—learning something new that then somehow disappears from the system—typically aren’t associated with normal aging. “That’s a classic sign of Alzheimer’s disease,” Gojmerac says, “when people will quite quickly forget something they were told and no amount of cueing will help them retrieve it.” However, when you can’t put your finger on the name of a familiar actor in the program you’re watching but your mind regurgitates it as you’re falling asleep, that’s an example of a retrieval issue, which typically crops up more frequently in later life.
“There are evidence-based strategies that you can use to outsmart normal memory changes,” Vandermorris says. The catch is that, like most skills, they require a bit of planning and, initially at least, a fair amount of practice.
Before learning any of these memory-boosting strategies, Palmer recommends changing your mindset: switch from being convinced that you’ll remember important things to assuming that you’re going to forget. For example, instead of thinking you’ll be sure to convey the message to your partner to return a crucial phone call as soon as he or she returns home, don’t plan with that in mind. If the dog darts out the door or another small household emergency arises, your original intention is more than likely to slip your mind. So instead, write the information down and post it in a prominent place, such as on a whiteboard on the refrigerator door, for example.
Make an extra effort to pay attention.
If you want to improve the likelihood that your partner is going to absorb something you tell him or her, mute the television, for instance, or if you’re doing a task that requires recalling a series of steps, turn off your phone ringer. (Multi-tasking is also a no-no.) It’s also easy to forget whether you’ve done a task that you perform automatically—unplugging the iron or locking the door on leaving the house—so take a moment to concentrate on what you’re doing.
Record the info.
Calendars, Day-timers, shopping and to-do lists, and reminder notes are tools that employ one of several so-called external strategies for supporting memory. “Just the act of writing something down can enhance your memory because it forces you to pay attention,” Gojmerac says.
Your smartphone is also an excellent auxiliary memory-cueing mechanism; you can set a regular alarm to prompt you to take medications and use the timer to prod you to empty the washing machine or check on a dish that’s simmering on the stove. Of course, it goes without saying that these manual backups work best when applied in a systematic fashion, so create a workflow for dealing with each category of important item or event (such as appointments) and make a point of sticking to it.
Palmer refers to activities such as sitting down to punch in all of the electronic reminders you need in the next week or month as part of a memory-augmenting process called “front-end loading”: investing a few minutes to put systems in place that will result in a net time savings by preventing memory mistakes and their consequences. “It also takes stress off the brain,” since you no longer have to be in a constant state of vigilance, she says, “because you can depend on some of these habitual processes you’ve put in place.” It’s a bit like relying on alphabetization when filing: if you input information in an organized manner, you’re much more likely to find it quickly and easily when you need it.
Furthermore, Palmer says that the sequence of thinking ahead (“I must write this down”), holding a thought in your mind long enough to locate your phone or a piece of paper, recording it, and having the foresight to remember to consult the list or calendar involves ping-ponging between the frontal and temporal lobes—both of which are susceptible to aging. Consequently, she says, “the use of external strategies for most people is exercise for the brain.”
Exploit or create habits.
Capitalizing on one of the types of memory that improve with life experience can also be extremely helpful. “Procedural memory is basically a fancy term for habits—things we do automatically,” Vandermorris says. “You can use procedural memory to set up routines around things you might misplace frequently.” For instance, you can prevent many a wild goose chase by designating a particular pouch in your purse as your cellphone’s home or a hook next to the front door as the spot where you put your keys the minute you get home. A similar behaviour is to park in the same area every time you visit the mall. “That’s simple, practical stuff,” Vandermorris says, “and you can extend that a lot further than people think.” Designating resting places for less used objects such as umbrellas (try the back seat of the car) or for essential items when in new environments are two examples.
State and/or repeat.
Of course, there are situations in which it’s not possible to fall back on external memory strategies, such as when you’re being introduced to someone at a party. Repeating the bit of information you want to commit to memory—the person’s name—at increasing intervals is so effective that it even works for people who have severe difficulty learning new information. “Research studies have shown this repetition strategy can help people with Alzheimer’s learn the name of their caregiver,” Gojmerac explains.
The technique is even more effective if you can repeat the information aloud in addition to doing so mentally—for instance, by working the person’s name into your conversation (“Lisa—what a nice name. I have an aunt named Lisa,” for example).
Stating an intention aloud can help you remember to carry it out, too. Say you’re in the basement doing laundry and you notice that your detergent supply is running low. It may feel silly, but just by vocally asserting, “When I get upstairs, I’m going to write ‘detergent’ on my shopping list,” you make it much more likely that you’ll follow through.
Connecting a new piece of information to another, familiar one can help you find your way back to it when it’s required. For example, when meeting someone for the first time, you might focus on the person’s name having a certain meaning or association—a literal translation (Angela = angel) or a place (Duncan = city in British Columbia). Perhaps a famous person shares the name. You can also link something you’d like to commit to memory to a fact that holds personal meaning: maybe you’ve parked on the fourth floor of the parkade—one floor for each of your grandchildren. Taking a moment to add this mental flag is like attaching a brightly coloured sticky note to a file folder.
Similarly, seeing something in your mind’s eye helps engrave it into memory. Visualize yourself writing “laundry detergent” on your shopping list or imagine Angela dressed as an angel. Or imagine the table in your foyer exploding when you place your keys there. Mentally moving to the location where you need to perform a future action works in much the same way that retracing your steps helps you find a lost item. If you need to get scissors when you get to the kitchen, picture yourself entering that room and opening the drawer. Combining visualization and vocalization makes it “astronomically more likely that you’re going to remember” to carry out an intended action, Vandermorris says.
Stop, and then clarify.
The same vulnerability to distraction that can prevent the encoding of a memory in the first place—plus the fast-paced world we live in—can cause absent-mindedness, Palmer says, particularly when we’re transitioning from one activity to the next. She recommends pausing for a moment between activities. Close the lid on what you’ve just completed and ask yourself a few questions (aloud, if possible) such as “What am I doing, where am I going, and what do I need?” This “stop and clarify” step, as Palmer calls it, will greatly increase the likelihood that you’ll remember to bring the present and the cake to the birthday party, compared to your chances if you were just to dash out the door. “It prevents a huge number of mistakes,” Palmer says.
Learning these skills and incorporating them into your life is well worth the investment. In the case of age-related glitches in “fetching a file” when you need it, “as long as you provide retrieval cues, age-related memory effects can disappear,” Gojmerac says.