Everyone experiences the occasional “senior moment” as they age.
You may misplace everyday items, fail to recall the name of someone you just met, or forget to do something. While these memory slips can be embarrassing and stressful, they usually don’t mean that you are on a path to dementia.
“Some degree of memory lapses is a normal part of aging,” says Lydia Cho, a neuropsychologist with Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “You can’t expect to hold on to all information you’ve gathered throughout your life, whether it was long ago or recent. It’s not realistic or adaptive.”
Factors at play
There are times when frequent forgetfulness should be checked out by your doctor, as it could be a symptom of an underlying treatable health problem. For example, insomnia, anxiety, and depression can affect brain functions, including memory.
If your lapses become more frequent or severe, or if they affect your daily life (like forgetting to pay bills or take medicine), your doctor may recommend a neuropsychological evaluation. In that exam, a specialist assesses your memory and other cognitive skills, such as attention, executive function, language, and visuospatial abilities.
Even though most memory lapses are not cause for concern, you can take measures to manage and improve your existing brain skills. Adopting various lifestyle behaviors is one way (see “Manage your memory with DANCERS”). For specific types of everyday memory issues, adopting certain strategies can help you retain and recall information or navigate memory hiccups when they arise.
Manage your memory with DANCERS
There are steps you can take to enhance your memory and help to delay or even prevent dementia. Lydia Cho, a neuropsychologist with Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital, suggests focusing on DANCERS, a set of lifestyle criteria created by Dr. James Ellison, former director of the geriatric psychiatry program at McLean.
D: Disease management. Maintain a healthy weight, don’t smoke, and keep blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels in line to help preserve cognitive function.
A: Activity. Any cardio exercise, like walking, swimming, and playing sports, is good for brain health. “Cardio can increase energy in the brain by improving oxygen and blood flow,” says Cho.
N: Nutrition. Poor nutrition leads to poor brain health. The DASH, MIND, and Mediterranean diets emphasize whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fatty fish, and healthy fats.
C: Cognitive stimulation. “Challenge your brain regularly,” says Cho. “The more you engage your brain, the more likely you can retain memory.”
E: Engagement. Research continues to show a reliable link between isolation and lower cognitive function. Any kind of social engagement is helpful.
R: Relaxation. Your brain needs adequate downtime. Do activities that you find relaxing, whether it’s exercise, yoga, meditation, reading, or bathing.
S: Sleep. Sleep is when your brain cleans out toxins. To get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night, practice good sleep hygiene. Examples: Set a sleep schedule and stick to it. Avoid any electronic devices for at least an hour before bedtime. Don’t eat after dinner time.
The following is a look at the memory obstacles you are most likely to encounter and ways to deal with them.
Absent-mindedness. This happens when you multitask and don’t concentrate on less critical tasks. (Think of the stereotypical absent-minded professor who can recall complex formulas but keeps misplacing his glasses.) Sometimes, the seemingly small details can have significant consequences, like forgetting to take medicine or leaving the house without your phone.
What you can do: When faced with multiple tasks, put them in order of importance and then focus on only one task at a time before moving on to the next. Setting up routines and reminders also can help prevent absent-mindedness.
For example, create a memory table by your front door or in the bedroom where you place all your vital objects, like your phone, medicines, and glasses. To make sure you take your medicines on schedule, use a pillbox labelled with dates and times, or set alarms on your smart phone to remind you.
Blocking. This is referred to as the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, when you can’t recall a name or specific detail. “You know the information, but you can’t immediately place a label on it,” says Cho. “This happens to everyone at times, no matter a person’s age, and isn’t cause for concern unless it becomes a more frequent occurrence.”
What you can do: Recalling names of people is the most common type of blocking. Cho suggests trying to associate a person with something that may help trigger name recall, like his or her hobby, work, background, or spouse. “Many times you know more detail about a person beyond his or her name,” she says. Another option is to associate the person with someone who has the same name or a similar one, like a relative, celebrity, or movie character. “You can also connect the name with a rhyming word or song,” says Cho. For large functions where you know the attendees, like family gatherings or meetings, rehearse people’s names beforehand.
Transience. Transience is the loss of certain memories — typically facts or events — over time. “The brain decides what information becomes less crucial or integral,” says Cho. For instance, you can memorize a phone number to use immediately, but then you don’t retain it because it’s no longer needed.
What you can do: If you want to retain certain memories, try to keep that information emotionally charged. “If you believe it’s important, your brain will likely hang on to it longer,” she says. You can do this by revisiting the memory through sharing it in conversation, recording it for future reference, and reviewing photographs.
Misattribution. Here, you recall accurate information from an event but can’t attribute it to the correct source, or you recognize a familiar face but place the person wrongly. Another type of is misattribution is false recognition, which scammers often exploit. “People try to convince you that you owe money, and you don’t trust your memory and second-guess yourself,” says Cho.
What you can do: If you have trouble connecting information with a source, write down the details of an event when they occur. You can also record the information (most smartphones have voice memo capabilities), or take pictures or videos. “But keep in mind that many times what you know is more important than where it came from, so focus on that,” says Cho.
To protect yourself from scams, never share financial information like account or credit card numbers on the phone or over the Internet. If you have doubts about an inquiry, and don’t trust your memory, run it by a friend or family member to ensure its legitimacy.
[First published by Harvard Health, September, 2020]