One day you run into an old friend on the street -- and blank out on his name.
Another time, you stride with purpose from one end of your house to the other to do something -- but when you get there, you don't have a clue as to what it was.
It happens to all of us at one time or another. The memory fails. Facts flutter away. And generally, the older we get, the more we forget.
But here's one piece of information you might want to remember: Researchers and doctors say there are some ways to boost our powers of recollection.
The memory-aiding strategies can't cure advanced Alzheimer's disease, brain damage or other serious afflictions. But they offer promise for people suffering from the normal, but troubling, lapses of memory related to aging.
"It's the nagging little memory lapses that start to bother us," says Elizabeth Glisky, a University of Arizona psychology professor who conducts research on memory. "Our research suggests that there are some things you can do about it."
Memory needs exercise
Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, president of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation, shares that optimism. "The brain is flesh and blood just like the rest of the body," he says. "It's not a computer. It's not a piece of wood. It's an organ, so it needs exercise, oxygen, glucose and general good nutrition" to function well.
That, Khalsa says, means there's hope for preserving brain functions such as memory -- and even improving them.
If it appears you're dealing with normal forgetfulness, Glisky offers these suggestions:
- Pay attention. Our minds sometimes wander instead of focusing on the matter at hand.
"It may be that some older people will have to consciously make an effort to pay attention," Glisky says. "It's not as automatic as it is for younger people."
- Repeat information you want to retain. For example, if you're introduced to several people at a party, try to repeat their names. One way to do this inconspicuously is to introduce your new acquaintances to others at the party.
- Make associations. Using the same example of meeting people at a party, try to associate a person's name with something about him or her. Harry might sport a thick mane of hair, and that could be the association that would help you remember his name.
- Seek to view new information in a context. "Some people remember the content, the detail, of an event, but they have trouble remembering the context -- where it happened, or who told them about it," Glisky says. "You may not be able to evaluate the information if you don't know where you got it. ... It's important to try to integrate these two -- the content of the sentence and who said it."
- Write things down.
- Use it or lose it. "It's still somewhat controversial," Glisky says, "but there's some evidence to suggest that people who are mentally active will retain their cognitive abilities."
Khalsa has sought to prevent and reverse memory loss with "an integrative or holistic approach" in his work with the Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation. These steps, he says, are "similar to a regular, healthful lifestyle, but they're very important to mental function and memory."
Khalsa's key factors include:
- Nutrition. A nutritious diet, low in saturated fats and bolstered with vitamins, can benefit the brain, Khalsa says.
- Stress management. "Stress raises a chemical in the blood called cortisol. It's neurotoxic," he says. "It kills brain cells in the memory center of the brain. Ways to reduce it would be meditation, yoga, massage or guided imagery."
- Exercise. Both physical and mental exercise can help limit memory loss, Khalsa says. "Studies have shown that women who get regular exercise between the ages of 40 and 60 have a lower incidence of Alzheimer's," he says. "... People who exercise increase blood flow to the brain and decrease memory loss."
The brain itself also needs workouts, Khalsa says. What's required is "thinking, but not intellectual thinking, like your job," he says. " This is the idea of doing something different -- taking up a hobby or music, or working crossword puzzles. You have to exercise your brain just as you exercise your body."