Making The Most Of Your Memory

The following article appeared in New Choices magazine, in the July/August, 1998 edition. It appears on with permission from Retirement Living Publishing Co., Inc.

The woman on the phone was interested in taking a memory course. She had the usual problems: difficulty remembering names, phone numbers, and appointments in her busy schedule. The teacher, Cynthia Green, listened carefully, to the woman's tale of recall woes then asked a few questions about her overbooked life. "It may be that you're distracted," Green offered, explaining that her course emphasizes the importance of paying better attention to what you want to remember. "Sign me up", the caller said.

A week before the course was to begin, the woman called Green again-to cancel. "She said she'd already applied what little I'd told her," says Green, "and it had helped so much 'she didn't feel she needed tile class anymore."

As director of the Memory Enhancement Program at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, psychologist Cynthia Green, Ph.D., finds that most memory lapses have less to do with failure to retrieve information than with failing to acquire it in the first place. "You can't remember something you didn't learn," she says. Green cites the example of the woman who reads the morning paper while gulping down her first cup of coffee listening to her husband and watching a morning news show - and who then wonders later why she doesn't remember seeing the two paragraph item at the top of page B4.

Such commonsense approaches to memory as Green's have come to dominate current research and thinking on how recall works and how it can be improved. The focus today is less on dreary predictions of dwindling brain cells or increasingly impaired nerve connections and more on the encouraging thesis that the brain is a dynamic, malleable organ able to compensate for biological deficits.

To be sure, some slippage does occur with age. "People legitimately complain about increasing forgetfulness but there are some aspects of memory that don't change at all," says Margie Lachman, Ph.D., a psychologist at tile National Policy and Resource Center on Women and Aging at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. "Those who say they're losing their memory are often making generalizations based on isolated experiences thinking that everything is going downhill when that's clearly not the case."

Given that the brain does change, the real question is: How can we compensate? The good news is that you can do a lot to improve your memory. The most effective strategies involve removing obstacles to learning and improving the quality of your attention.

Obstacles come in many forms, some of which relate to lifestyle or general health rather than the condition of the brain. For example, one recent Swedish study found a relationship between high blood pressure and poor thinking. Other health-related memory inhibitors include thyroid disorderand diseases such as diabetes, as well as the side effects of a number of common medications. Other common obstacles include stress, fatigue, anxiety, and depression. When you're sleepy or upset (and the two often go together), for instance, it's harder to concentrate on what you want to remember, much less actually recall it later.

Write It Down

One of the most basic and effective ways to improve your memory is to write down what you want to remember.

"Newly retired workers who formerly had clerical help on the job often must learn to use this technique," Green says. "They have to get used to reminding themselves by jotting down lists, keeping appointment books, and so on."

Many people assume, incorrectly, that writing reminders to yourself is a form of cheating or an admission of failing mental prowess. The truth is that a written backup helps you absorb information more deeply, which can enhance memory even if you never again look at what you wrote. The act of writing also engages additional areas of the brain that process visual input and motor skills. Studies have found, for example, that although younger people do better than older adults at remembering random lists of spoken words, both groups do equally well at recalling words they are first allowed to write down.

Any form of organizing helps separate important information from the numerous distractions that clutter our mental in-boxes. Random lists of words or numbers are hard to remember precisely because they have no context. Interestingly, older people in word-recall studies can hold their own with younger ones when the words to be remembered are framed in a meaningful sentence. Indeed, people over 50 may have certain advantages in the memory game, according to Arthur Wingfield, Ph.D... director of the Memory and Cognition Laboratory at Brandeis University's Volen Center for Complex Systems. Possessing greater stores of information and experience expands the ability to make connections between, and give meaning to, different bits of information.

It's not as if you have a mental filing cabinet in which old cobwebbed information is forced out as new material arrives. Rather, as fresh information comes in, existing files are rewritten to make it all relate. The greater your knowledge moreover, the better you should be able to sort through and file this information and set priorities. "We see 60-vear-olds who can run memory rings around college kids," notes Wingfield, "precisely because they've developed these capabilities."

When, it comes to gender, there's sonic evidence that men and women process information differently,. Men may be better with spatial information, for example, and women with verbal, but there's no good evidence that one sex has an inherently better memory than the other, according to Green "Rather, because of societal standards, we become accustomed to remembering differently," she says. "I may be the one who remembers the grocery list, fo example, while my husband may be better at recalling where we left the car."

Create Meaningful Associations

Building meaningful associations is at the heart of many techniques Green teaches in her class at Mount Sinai.
During one recent session, she asked students first to recall a random list of' 20 grocery items Then she had them "chunk" the items into categories - meat, dairy produce, dry goods, and beverages. This simple trick alone boosted most students' recall from around 6 items to 15 or so.

You can also vary this technique. If you want to buy oranges, bread, waffles, napkins, milk, and mayonnaise for example, take the first letter of each item and devise a sentence such as ''Oh Boy, We Need to Make Masks." You can remember the same grocery list by pairing items in vivid ways Imagine a rain of oranges pounding loaves of bread, napkins wiping up messy waffles, a river of milk and mayonnaise Three images instead of six cuts your memory requirements in half.

The more vivid an association is, the more likely you are to remember it.. One man in Green's class found it particularly helpful to create humorous mental pictures our of people's names. To remember the name Frank Hill, for example, he pictured a frankfurter marching up a hill. "This Man was a political activist who met new people continually so it was important for him to remember names," says Green. "The technique takes work but it was natural for him

  • Break long numbers into shorter ones. You can remember long strings of' numbers more easily if you divide them into smaller units. That's why phone numbers are broken into units: 123-4567 instead of 1234567.
  • Look at things with an artist's eye. You may not remember where you parked the car unless you print its location in your mind's scrapbook. Pretend you're about to paint a picture of the scene (or imagine describing it to a friend). Take note of colors, lighting, and nearby objects. Glance away and try to remember everything you can. Now look back again to fill in missing details. And when you're walking from your car, turn around to see what 'it looks like from the other direction.
  • Be selective. Give up on trying to remember every character or plot development in a novel or movie Instead, concentrate on what you think is most important. Focus on major dramatic events (the big ship sinks), turning points (the steerage-class artist sketches the first-class society girl nude), and themes (the hubris of humanity, the power of love, freedom. and directors with unlimited budgets).
  • Criticize, analyze, sermonize. Mentally register an opinion or observation about people places or events. We tend to reconcile the things we mull over most in our minds. Better yet, share your views with someone else.
  • Think alpha and omega. It's no surprise that many people know the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, but nothing in between We tend to remember best those items on a list that fal either at the beginning or the end. Making a to-do list? Put the expendable, nonurgent tasks in the middle.
  • Become a creature of habit. If you often have trouble finding your keys, make a point of keeping them in the same place every time you put them down. And also train yourself to set up storage sites for other often-used objects.

Such formal techniques as these may not come naturally to everyone however, or always be useful. In fact, several researchers suggest that the main benefit of learning to boost memory isn't the change in ability that results, but the change in attitude. In a study at Mount Sinai Medical Center for example, people who seemed to have good recall (but complained about it anyway) were two groups. One group focused onmemory enhancement techniques, but also learned that it's normal for distraction, lack of attention, and lifestyle factors to fritz the brain's circuits; the other simply watched educational about the mind. Nine weeks later, the first group performed only slightly better on recall tests, and that edge disappeared after six months. However, they benefited in a more significant way.

"The crucial difference was first group developed a better understanding of their competence and became less concerned about age memory changes," says Richard Mohs, Ph.D., director of Mount Sinai's Charles A. Dana Center on Memory and Aging. "Insights of this kind general people better in the long run than do specific techniques."

Not surprisingly, fear of having a bad memory may actually make memory worse by discouraging you from the very activities that can stimulate the mind and improve recall, notes Wingfeld. "A 20-year-old who forgets to go to the dentist shrugs it off, while a 50-vear-old says, 'I'm having memory problems.' When you notice your failures out of portion to your successes and lose confidence in your ability to recall, you tend to give up sooner and not keep trying. Because you worry about forgetting the names of every character in a novel, for example, you may read less."

Memory does not have to be something you inevitably lose. By eliminating distractions, focusing on what matters to you, and remaining active, you can gain greater control of your memory - and make the most of what you've got.

Vitamins and Memory Homocysteine (a naturally occurring amino acid) plays a role in restricting blood flow by narrowing arteries, including those that carry blood to the brain. By controlling homocysteine levels, you may be able to protect the brain's blood supply. That, theoretically, should help maintain memory, says Katherine Tucker, Ph.D., of the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Boston. The combination of vitamins B6, B12, and folic acid can reduce levels of homocysteine. So eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in these vitamins, and take a multivitamin supplement designed for people over age 50.

Medications That Can Muddle Your Meory

A number of drugs commonly used by people over 50 can have a negative impact on memory. If you think a drug you're taking may be impairing your memory or any other mental function, talk to your doctor about alternatives or dosage adjustments. Here are some of the most common drugs affecting memory, according to Cynthia Green of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City: Antihistamines: Most will make you drowsy, a sure way to impair not only recall but the acquisition of information. Check labels on over-the-counter products, or ask your doctor about side effects when getting anti-allergy prescriptions. Anti-anxiety drugs: Medications such as benzodiazepines, sometimes used for depression as well as anxiety, affect brain function in ways not limited to the problems they treat. Bladder regulators: Often prescTibed (at least temporarily) following prostate surgery, drugs that contain oxybutynin chloride, a sedative, have been associated with impaired thinking, Pain relievers: Prescription analgesics may contain opiates, which dull the central nervous system. Caffeine: It's a drug, not a nutrient. In small doses, caffeine can help sharpen mental abilities, but too much can hinder your ability to retain information.

By Richard Laliberte;c1998 by Retirement Living Publishing Co., Inc