Forget This Myth of Aging
Boy, is this going to be a day. At 10:00 a.m., you have to see Barb about the Bonner project. At 11:00 a.m., it's Bob and the Bagelman account. This afternoon, the boss has booked a briefing with Bonny in Boston about the Bledsoe bookkeeping blowup.
And so you call Barb at 10:00 a.m. to talk about Bonner. But Barry butts in with a bulletin about the Browning building. By then you have to rush to call Bob about the Bledsoe books--or was that Bonny with the Bagelman account? Belinda with Borghoff? Oh, brother. How bad can it get?
A few years ago, you probably could have kept it all straight. But you're having more trouble remembering things now, like birthdays, clients' names, phone numbers. Wait. Isn't forgetfulness a sign that age is creeping up on you?
"There's no doubt: When you forget things, it makes you feel like your mind is slipping away on you," says Douglas Herrmann, Ph.D., a memory researcher at the National Center for Health Statistics in Washington, D.C., and author of Super Memory.
But Dr. Herrmann says there's plenty of room for optimism. You may need to pay a little more attention to your memory, but it's probably still fully functional. "In all likelihood, you're not losing your memory," he says. "With a little focus and a little work, your memory will be just as good as it was in your teens and twenties--maybe even better."
Still a Gray Area
Experts still don't really know how we store and recall information. One theory holds that people may keep memories in holographic, three-dimensional form, using networks of neurons and electrochemical reactions to gain access to the system. Researchers do know that you can reach the same memory through a number of different paths. Smells can trigger a memory, as can a familiar sight, word or phrase.
Always losing your keys? Designate a spot for them in your house or office. If you put your keys--or glasses or other things--in the same place every day, you'll always know where they are, says Douglas Herrmann, Ph.D., a memory researcher at the National Center for Health Statistics in Washington, D.C., and author of Super Memory.
Most scientists break down memory into three parts. First is the working memory, also called the scratch-pad memory. Dr. Herrmann says people use this to recall phone numbers or other information they need for a very short period of time--usually about a minute. Then it's usually just forgotten.
The mid-range, or intermediate, memory keeps all the information you've consciously and unconsciously absorbed within the past few hours or days. Eventually, you either forget that stuff because it's not important (what did you have for breakfast three days ago?) or transfer it to long-term memory. There you store permanent recollections, such as important addresses and names, Mom's apple pie recipe and memories of childhood Christmas mornings.
For years, studies kept showing that scratch-pad and mid-range memories start declining relatively early in life--even in your forties. But the research was flawed, Dr. Herrmann says. New evidence shows that you probably won't suffer serious memory loss until well into your sixties or seventies, he says.
So why are you forgetting things more than you used to? Stress could be the culprit. "Your ability to concentrate and make decisions, along with short-term memory, may be one of the first areas of mental functioning hit by stress," says Paul J. Rosch, M.D., president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, New York. And try not to worry about forgetting things; Dr. Herrmann says anxiety about memory makes it even harder to remember.
Then there's just plain old sensory overload. When life pulls you five ways at once, Dr. Herrmann says, you're less likely to concentrate on details. "And the less you pay attention, the less you're going to remember," he says.
For most women, memory loss never becomes a serious problem. But some diseases, most notably Alzheimer's, lead to direct memory trouble. If you forget significant appointments at work, can't recall the names of family members or good friends or become severely disoriented or confused, see a doctor, warns Francis Pirozzolo, M.D., a neuropsychologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Byte Off What You Can Chew
Computers remember information in small pieces, or bytes. That's the best way for you to do it, too, according to Francis Pirozzolo, M.D., a neuropsychologist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
The process is called chunking. Since your mind remembers items in groups of five to nine, break down lists into segments of that size. It's much easier to remember five groups of 5 items than it is to remember a list of 25 items, Dr. Pirozzolo says. And if you can group similar things together--fruits on one list, paper products on another--you'll do even better.
Hold That Thought
Your brain is not a computer. You can't just run to the store and buy more memory; you have to learn to use what you have.
Fortunately, you already have plenty of storage space. Here's how to take better advantage of it.
Jog your mind. Regular exercise may give you a memory boost. In one study, people who took a nine-week water aerobics class scored better on general memory tests than a similar non-exercising group. "The aerobic exercise may have increased oxygen efficiency to the brain," says the study's co-author, Richard Gordin, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Utah State University in Logan.
Dr. Gordin stresses that the results are preliminary. But other studies are coming up with similar findings. And then there are the added benefits of lower risk for heart disease and stroke and all the other helpful side effects of exercise.
Pay attention. This is the most basic--and most forgotten--memory aid. Don't expect to memorize a client's product line while you're talking to another client long distance. Don't expect to remember a person's name if you're thinking about what you're going to have for lunch when you make your introductions.
"It's simple," Dr. Herrmann says. "Focus, focus, focus. If it doesn't register in your brain initially, you have no chance of remembering it." So when there's key information to recall, drop what you're doing and spend a couple of minutes concentrating. Then move to the next task at hand.
Sleep on it. A good night's rest will do wonders for your memory. Research shows that people who are awakened during dream sleep fail to process memories from the day before and thus forget more. Dr. Herrmann also says that regular sleep allows your entire body to recharge, making you more alert and more attentive to detail. "And avoid sleeping pills," he says. "You don't get the same quality sleep, and you're less likely to remember things during the following day."
One more hint: if you're studying or working into the night, go to sleep as soon as you're done. Going out afterward for a drink or a cup of coffee, or staying up to watch the news, makes it harder to remember the information the next day.
Be a Slow Learner
You'll remember information longer if you absorb it gradually rather than all at once, according to Harry P. Bahrick, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. In an eight-year study, he found that people who practiced their Spanish vocabulary once a month remembered four times more words than people who practiced daily. Dr. Bahrick says the principle works for physical skills, too. "If I was learning how to golf, I'd practice an hour a week for seven weeks rather than an hour a day for seven days," he says.
Be selective. We have invented telephone books, address books, computer files, pencils, pens and those little yellow sticky pads--all to help us remember things. So use them. "Why spend time trying to memorize giant shopping lists when you can just write them down?" Dr. Pirozzolo asks. "If you are a busy person with lots to remember, making lists frees up your memory to recall more important items."
Break the stereotype. Studies show that many women believe members of their gender are good at remembering "female things" such as grocery lists--and bad at remembering "male things" such as directions. Untrue. Dr. Herrmann's research shows that women and men have similar memory ability but sometimes apply it differently because of lingering social stereotypes. If you want to improve on any area of your memory--with shopping lists, directions or anything else--Dr. Herrmann suggests practice. "That's the only way to get better at it," he says.
GLAD You Can Remember
You have to buy gas, pick up the laundry, get some apples and make a bank deposit. To remember the list, try forming a word using the first letter of each item--in this case, GLAD. It's called mnemonics, according to Francis Pirozzolo, M.D., a neuropsychologist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. If you convert information into a familiar form, such as a simple word, you're more likely to remember it, he says.
Mind your minerals. There's nothing better for your memory than a balanced, healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, Dr. Herrmann says. There's also some evidence that keeping up your intake of zinc and boron can revive your memory, according to James G. Penland, Ph.D., research psychologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in North Dakota. One study showed that women on low-zinc diets scored lower on short-term memory than they did when they got their Recommended Dietary Allowance of 12 milligrams. A half-dozen steamed oysters gives you a whopping 76.4 milligrams of zinc. Other good sources include wheat germ, lean meats and pumpkin and squash seeds.
The same held true for boron, which your body needs in trace amounts. Women who ate high-boron diets of about three milligrams per day scored higher on tests of attention and memory. That's the same amount you'll find in three apples. Other good boron sources include prunes, dates, raisins and peanuts.
Dr. Penland points out that these studies show that you're better off with recommended levels of boron and zinc than you are at low levels. But that doesn't mean taking high doses of the two will improve memory further; proving that will take more study.
Can the coffee. Caffeine is a proven memory killer, Dr. Herrmann says. More than one cup during the workday is probably going to overstimulate you and make it harder to concentrate. "It's an out-and-out myth that coffee helps you remember. It may keep you awake, but by wrecking your sleep you'll remember even less," Dr. Herrmann says.
Smoking causes the same problem with overstimulation, Dr. Herrmann says. And alcohol, even one drink, reduces the ability of individual brain cells to process and store information. Long-term drinking also kills brain cells, Dr. Herrmann says.
Ignore miracle cures. Lots of pills and powders advertise themselves as "miracle memory boosters." They don't work, according to Thomas H. Crook, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and president of Memory Assessment Clinics, based in Bethesda, Maryland. There has been promising research into memory enhancement drugs, but Dr. Crook says nothing on the market today will help. "They're really just nutritional supplements masquerading as cures," he says.
Are you sometimes forced to remember information amid the chaos at home or work? Practice will help. Turn on the television loudly and then try to concentrate on something else for a few minutes, such as reading a book or memorizing a phone number. This will help you overcome the background noise and pay attention, says Douglas Herrmann, Ph.D., a memory researcher at the National Center for Health Statistics in Washington, D.C., and author of Super Memory. You could also try watching two televisions at the same time. That forces you to pay attention only to important information and helps you hone your concentration.