YesYou walk into a room without remembering what you came in for. Or you meet an old acquaintance at work and forget their name. Most of us have had such short-lived memory lapses, but in middle age they start to feel more ominous. Did they make us look unprofessional, or did they pass? Could this even be a sign of impending dementia? However, the good news for increasingly forgetful people is that not only can memory improve with practice, but it also appears that the increasing number of Alzheimer’s cases can also be prevented.
Neuroscientist Dr. Richard Restak is past president of the American Neuropsychiatric Association, has lectured on the brain and behavior from the Pentagon to NASA, and has written more than 20 books on people brain books. His latest book, The Complete Guide to Memory: The Science of Strengthening the Mind, addresses the great unspoken fear that every time you don’t remember where you put your reading glasses, it’s a sign of impending doom . “In America today,” he wrote, “anyone over the age of 50 lives in fear of the big A.” He wrote that memory loss is the most common complaint that people over 55 bring to their doctors , although most of what they describe is nothing to worry about.
For example, it’s perfectly normal to come out of the store and not remember where you parked your car: it’s quite possible that you just didn’t pay attention while you parked, so the car’s position isn’t properly encoded in your brain. Forgetting your purpose in entering the room may just be a sign that you’re busy and preoccupied with other things, Restak says.
“Samuel Johnson said that the art of memory is the art of attention,” he said offline in his Washington, D.C. office (at 80, Restak is still a professor of medicine and health at George Washington Hospital University. Faculty of Clinical Practice). “These ‘memory loss’ sins are mostly inattention sins. If you’re at a party, you’re not really listening to someone because you’re still thinking about something to do with work related things and then suddenly you find that you don’t remember their names. The first thing is you put the information in memory – that’s consolidating it – and then you have to be able to retrieve it. But if you don’t have it in the first place Integrate it and it doesn’t exist.”
But what if you forget where you put your car keys and end up finding them in the fridge? “It’s usually the first sign of a serious problem – you open the refrigerator door and there are newspapers, or your car keys. It’s kind of forgotten.”
He pointed out that memory does vary, and some people are always disorganized. But the real red flags are the seemingly untimely changes. If you’re an avid poker player who prides yourself on keeping track of the cards you’ve played, and suddenly realize you can’t do it any more, this might be worth looking into. Likewise, Restak noticed that many patients in the early stages of dementia stop reading novels because it is difficult to remember what the characters said or did a few chapters ago — which is unfortunate, he says, because reading complex novels can be very difficult Valuable mental exercise itself.
Restak and his wife are currently starring in Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which has a complex cast: “It’s an exercise in being able to follow a character without going backwards from page to page.” If it’s already difficult for you, he says, emphasize it the first time a new character is mentioned, then go back and remind yourself when necessary. “Do whatever you can to keep yourself reading.”
Like following a recipe, following a fictional episode is an exercise in working memory — unlike short-term memory (where you temporarily store things like phone numbers that you can safely forget the moment you call them) or episodic memory, which Covers things like childhood memories. Working memory is what we use to “process the information we have,” Restak says, and it’s something we should all prioritize. He points out that if left unchecked, memory will naturally decline from the 30s, which is why he advocates daily practice.
Restak’s book is full of games, techniques, and ideas to hone your memory, often involving creating vivid visual images of the things you want to remember. He has a mental map of his neighborhood in his head, combining visually familiar landmarks—his house, the local library, restaurants he frequents—for every item on his list he wants to remember , he will create a memorable visual image and attach it to a specific location on the map. For example, to remember to buy milk, bread, and coffee later, he might envision his house becoming a carton of milk, a library full of bread instead of books, and a mug of coffee spilling out of the dining room.
The book also touches on broader lifestyle advice. A recent study by the Lancet Dementia Committee showed that up to 40% Alzheimer’s cases can be prevented or delayed — like heart disease and many cancers — by limiting 12 risk factors, from smoking to obesity and heavy drinking.
Restak advises his patients to stop drinking by age 70 at the latest. He writes that people over 65 typically have fewer neurons in their brains than they did when they were younger, so why take the risk? “Alcohol is a very, very weak neurotoxin — it’s not good for nerve cells.”
He’s also an advocate for afternoon naps, as getting enough sleep helps brain function (which may help explain why sleep-deprived new mothers and menopausal women with night sweats and insomnia often complain of brain fog).
Even more unexpectedly, he recommends immediate solutions to hearing or vision problems, as they make it harder for people to have conversations and hobbies that keep the gears turning. “You have to have a certain level of vision to read comfortably, without that vision you will read less. As a result, you will learn less and be less interesting to others. All These things all come down to socialization, which is the most important part of staying away from Alzheimer’s and dementia and keeping memories.”
Is he saying that honing your memory can stop you from developing Alzheimer’s? “No one can guarantee that other people will not develop dementia. Take Iris Murdoch (the late author, who suffered greatly) – there is probably no smarter woman in all of Europe, so It shows it can happen. But I liken it to driving: You can’t guarantee you won’t get into an accident, but by wearing your seatbelt, checking your speed, and keeping your car well-maintained, you can reduce the chance of an accident.”
However, not all memories are what people want to treasure. Many people have mental images they’d rather forget, whether it’s an embarrassing mistake or a painful failed relationship, or the intrusive flashbacks of PTSD.
The fantasy of wiping the slate clean is prevalent in pop culture, from the movie Spotless Eternal Sunshine (about a pair breaking up and using futuristic machines to erase each other’s memories) to the Men in Black series, the secrets of battling aliens Agents protect mortals from the truth about things outside by electronically erasing the memory of anyone who sees them in action.
These may be strictly fantasies, but we already have technology, Restak suggests, to suppress people from leaving memories that could haunt them in the future. Beta-blockers, drugs sometimes used to treat high blood pressure, have been found to dampen the emotional responses that are triggered when recalling scary events, but Restark said there is evidence that they also interfere with the consolidation of events as memories.
“There’s actually been a discussion about whether these drugs should be part of the arsenal, and if we have to send people into scary scenarios, like after a shooting – that must be a horrible experience, to go there and clean up those bits. .” But it’s a blunt tool—drugs can’t distinguish between memories that might be useful to emergency responders in the future from distressing ones—and raises complex questions about the ethics of tampering with people’s minds.
Restak also highlighted concerns about what he calls “memory wars,” or attempts to influence a nation’s collective memory by arguing over the meaning of a particular event or period. “The way we structure it in memory is how we see the world around us, that’s what’s encoded in memory,” he said, pointing to the recent political debate in the United States over whether the country has entered a technological recession — defined as two A quarterly economic contraction – actually a “real” recession. “It’s important because if you think you’re in a recession, you have certain beliefs and ways of acting, and that’s how we’re going to remember July 2022.”
And, as he says, memory is inherent in us. It binds families and couples together as we recall our shared past. At the same time, for individuals, past experiences give life meaning and texture. “We are what we can remember. The more things you can remember, the clearer and fuller and richer our personalities become,” says Restak, who believes that people with dementia have flatter personalities and weaker. “People say, ‘Oh, they don’t seem to be the same person.'” Maybe that’s why we’re so afraid of Alzheimer’s disease: memory is closely related to self-awareness.
However, even after memory loss, it’s not necessarily too late to help people grab what’s left. Restak, a neurologist, knows of two patients who are “not sure where they are or what day it is” and still play a decent game of bridge. If your loved one has Alzheimer’s, Restark says, don’t upset them by constantly challenging mistakes or memory lapses; instead, meet them where they are now.
“What else are they interested in? Talking about this, working with that, because even with dementia, a lot of things stay within the normal range,” he said. “You don’t just see it as a desperate situation, even though it’s a very frustrating and very sad situation.” Where the memory lingers, there may be hope.