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Terry Stawar

Last month a group of people I know decided to change the location of a routine monthly meeting. This month I discovered that more than half of them, including me, had forgotten the change. I can remember discussing all the reasons for relocating the meeting, but evidently this was not enough to make a mental impression on most of us.

Of course, this comes as no big surprise. My wife, Diane, and I have noticed how it seems like we are always forgetting something these days. I especially have a problem remembering if I did something or not. According to psychologist Ira Hyman, from Western Washington University, many folks have difficulty with “reality monitoring.” This is how people keep track of whether they actually did something or only thought about doing it. Hyman says that this system breaks down for two main reasons.

First, some thoughts and plans are extremely detailed and may be confused with actual memories. I sort of like this notion that instead of losing my mind, I’m just a very meticulous planner. Second, people often fail to pay attention to the actions they perform, because they already are thinking about their next plan. According to Hyman, just being more mindful of the present can help with this type of forgetting.

Memory is not just the static and objective recording of events as they happened. It is an active and subjective process. Psychologist Daniel Schacter, from Harvard, says, “One interesting line of neuroscience research on something called reconsolidation indicates that when we bring a memory back to mind, it can enter a kind of vulnerable state.” It is as if every time we retrieve some memory our internal data base updates itself. This can result in unintentional revisions. People are also prone to memory errors, such the consistency bias, in which we alter past memories to make them consistent with our current beliefs and the egocentric bias “where we tend to remember the past in ways that make us look good…”

Human memory is a remarkably powerful and yet delicate phenomenon. According to Northwestern University psychologist Paul Reber, the human brain has a capacity of more than 2.5 petabytes. That is roughly equivalent to three million hours of television programing or 300 years of constant TV viewing. That’s just about how much television I watched as a kid, so maybe that why I’m having trouble cramming more stuff in there.

Memory has three distinct stages: (1) Encoding, (2) Storage and (3) Retrieval. There are also two basic mechanisms — short-term or working memory and long-term memory. Short-term memory is like a mental scratch pad that has a limited capacity of about 7 to 9 items. Long-term memory consists of a large store of consolidated memories of everything we’ve learned.

As they get older people spend less time processing their memories. Often their attention is divided so that encoding becomes shallower, leading to the storage of fuzzier memories with less detail. Stress and multi-tasking are among the chief causes of memory lapses. Stress hormones are especially antithetical to good memory functioning.

When people reach their 60s, they often fear that memory problems may indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease or other neurocognitive impairment. Research suggests, however, that less than 20 percent of adults 65 years of age actually have diagnosable memory disorders. Even for people over 85 years of age, less than half have serious memory disorders.

As we age there is some decline in brain volume and a decrease in cerebral blood flow. Studies, however, show that the human brain is still capable of growth and learning throughout the lifespan. Occasional memory lapses are just part of the normal aging process. These include occasionally (1) forgetting where you left things, (2) being unable to remember acquaintances’ names, (3) forgetting an appointment, (4) walking into a room and forgetting why you entered, (5) forgetting what you’ve just read, and (6) blocking while trying to retrieve information (the tip-of-the tongue phenomena).

The ability to recall concepts and general information usually holds constant, while memories of smaller details tend to decline over time. Processing new information and multi-tasking may also become more difficult. The most common reversible causes of memory loss are: stress, anxiety, depression, dehydration, infections, medication side-effects, poor diet, substance use and thyroid imbalance. Medical intervention can often restore memory that has been impaired by such factors.

Neurocognitive researchers have identified a number of strategies that help maintain a healthy and functional memory. These often include:

1. Using computer games and smart phone applications for brain training;

2. Refraining from smoking, excessive alcohol and substance use;

3. Managing stress;

4. Getting plenty of sleep;

5. Eating a healthy diet, especially foods containing antioxidants;

6. Playing strategy games like chess and bridge;

7. Playing number and word games like Scrabble, Sudoku and crossword puzzles;

8. Reading current newspapers, magazines and challenging books;

9. Engaging in novel activities;

10. Taking a course in an unfamiliar subject;

11. Leaning to play a new musical instrument;

12. Learning a new foreign language;

13. Taking on projects that involve planning, such as planting a garden or making a quilt;

14. Engaging regularly in physical activities such as hiking and walking;

15. Repeating whatever you hear out loud, such names, addresses or new ideas;

16. Dividing information into manageable chunks;

17. Interacting with others through socializing, working or volunteering for some meaningful cause;

18. Attending to your hearing and sight with regular exams, new glasses and hearing aids as needed;

19. Keeping focused and avoid distractions; and

20. Using memory aids such as associations, lists, written reminders, organizers, calendars and established routines.

Finally people should consider seeking professional help when their memory problems become severe enough to significantly interfere with their ability to engage in everyday activities. I had a much more amusing ending, but I must have forgotten it.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems, a behavioral health and primary care center headquartered in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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