Middle aged and worrying about memory problems? Here are some tips on managing your memory better

Published on February 20, 2018

neurons 

“If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory.There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences.”

Jane Austen (1812-1814)

 

“Of all mental faculties, memory is unique. It defines who we are and places our lives on a narrative continuum from birth to death. It helps to structure our days, it guides our daily tasks and goals, and it provides pleasurable interludes as we anticipate the future and recall the past. … In the face of other losses that accumulate with age, memory can serve to preserve our sense of self and place in time.”

Berry et al, (2010)

Abundant scientific evidence has shown that, past middle age, there is a decline in memory function.  However, this natural decline in memory with age is quite modest and occurs gradually. In fact, so modest and so gradual that most of us don’t even notice it and when we do, usually in later middle age, it comes as a bit of a shock to us.  This may be true particularly for those who have always had good memory. However, the good news is that the normal age-related deficits in memory can be largely compensated for and managed with the learning of appropriate strategies and also by changing in our attitude. Much of this post will be concerned with how to make this adaptation.

Ways to manage your memory problems

There are four main approaches to the things you can do to better manage your memory difficulties. To help you remember them I will use an mnemonic device called an acronym consisting in this case “RISE” which consists of the first letters of 4 components for improving your memory performance:


R = Remove obstacles
I = Introduce new life style habits
S = Strategize: use mnemonic strategies such as acronyms
E = Effort: exercise your memory habits by daily practice

R = Remove activities and beliefs in your lifestyle which are well known to exacerbate memory problems.

Meditation

Firstly, “Remove” internal sources of stress. Worry and the associated anxiety inhibit memory function, both the initial incorporation of new information (encoding) and the recall of such memories (retrieval).  In most older individuals worrying about “losing my memory” is probably one of the most frequent sources of internal anxiety and can be quite debilitating.

When I interned in neuropsychology over four decades ago, one of my first patients was in his early 70s, head of a large international company, and was very worried that he was “losing” his memory which had up to then served him well.  Novice that I was, I was expecting some neurological problem but testing revealed he had the memory ability of a 40 year old! When informed of this and given some standard stress management techniques, including strategies to help him stop catastrophizing, his memory problems faded into insignificance.  This case illustrates that if we catastrophize about the occasional lapse in our memory, we are greatly handicapping ourselves.

Secondly “Remove” external sources of stress.

  • Where possible, take time in advance of demanding situations to reduce stressful factors.  For example, a recent stressor in my own life was moving house which ranks as one of the major life stressors and of course puts extreme demands on anyone’s memory. Next time, I will make sure to get sufficient help so that I am not over-stressed.
  • If you have a potentially demanding task coming up eg a yearly job evaluation, control your level of stress using the acronym “HALT”.  Don’t let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.
  • Where possible remove unnecessary complications and distractions. This strategy has an unforgettable acronym, “KISS” which reminds us to “Keep It Simple Stupid”. 

I = Introduce new life style habits using modern neuroscientific knowledge of how memory works in the brain.

  • Introduce regular exercise, healthy nutrition, and lots of rest and sleep into your lifestyle. There is solid scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of these habits to optimize mental functioning including memory.
  • Introduce daily memory practice routines. Adopt a new attitude of being willing to engage in tasks which challenge your memory.  A psychologist friend of mine, in her 80s, starts every morning with a Sudoku puzzle and follows this by a crossword puzzle. 
  • Introduce a new attitude of being kinder to yourself with respect to your memory performance.  This was part of my treatment of the successful business man mentioned previously.  Once we discussed the natural effects of age on memory, he gradually accepted that he, like everyone else, had age associated declines in mental ability. With this acceptance, his stress decreased and he became a happier person.
  • Introduce a new positive attitude toward your memory performance and towards your self-concept.Notice your successes as well as your failures in memory. Practice positive self-talk about memory errors you make eg “I am not as good at this as I once was, but I am doing just fine for my age. Using these techniques can help you maintain a positive self-concept about your memory potential.  Not to do so is demoralizing and can lead to a downward spiral of depression and with it a concomitant decline in memory.

S = Strategize: use specific strategies to improve your memory performance. Utilize knowledge of how the brain stores information to create strategies to improve your memory ability.

Mind Map

  • The very first thing to do when you want to remember something, is to focus your attention on it. Dr. West describes this intense focusing as “Active observation”.  It is based on the simple proposition that if you want to remember something, the first thing you must do is pay close attention to it. It is somewhat similar to mindfulness but it is more intense and involves consciously focussing on the item to be memorized.  Active observation is a skill which can be improved through practice.
  • Make associations. Mentally connect new items to something already in your memories. For example, if you are introduced to someone called Mr. Brown then it is helpful to associate the name “Brown” with something that is the colour brown eg Mr. Brown is wearing a brown suit.  However, association of this kind can be made stronger if you can think of something that is meaningful, dramatic, funny or memorable. Your association may be that “Mr Brow’s brown suit is far to big for him. The principle here is that things that have a common feature are more easily linked in the memory bank and more easily recalled.  For example, when I moved into my new apartment I put the shoes in one place and put things associated with shoes eg shoe polish in an adjacent place. It was very easy then to find the shoe polish.
  • The acronym as an exemplar of a mnemonic strategy.  I have already used RISE as an acronym to help you remember the main suggestions of this post.  When making your own acronyms one of the most important things is to make it resonate with you in some way so that you can more easily recall it in the future.

E = Effort: exercise your memory habits.

Chess

  • All of the above suggestions for improving memory have in common that they require you to consciously exert effort. There is no magic wand. For example, it takes effort to maintain “active observation” when you are listening to an important but boring speech. Another example is that acronyms can be forgotten if not learned thoroughly through daily practice.  But do try to make these memory strategies fun. I am sure my psychologist friend who does Soduku crossword puzzles every morning enjoys doing so.
  • Be realistic about memory practice. As pointed out by Dr West “the benefits of memory practice are specific to the task that was practiced.  (Therefore) -to improve memory "in general", practice many tasks and master a few memory strategies”. In other words doing crossword puzzles will not help to remember new faces. Different sensory modalities require different memory strategies.

 

Conclusion

Deficits in memory ability are widespread and can be caused by many conditions including:

  • Aging (by far the most prevalent cause)
  • Addictions
  • Anxiety: Stress, Anxiety, PTSD
  • Depression
  • Various brain diseases including Alzheimer’s, tumour growth (benign or cancer)
  • ADHD

Despite its high prevalence, and diverse aetiologies, memory as a topic of research is understudied. A simple search using Google Scholar yielded 1,290,000 research papers for cancer but only 652,000 for memory.We owe a debt of gratitude to those who have researched ways to help those with memory problems.People like Dr. Robin West has devoted over 30 years of her professional life carrying out memory research and applying it by delivering helpful memory training workshops.Nearly all the suggestions in this post come from her research. Thank you, Dr. West.

If you have tried some of the suggestions made in this introduction tomemory training and still have problems, I suggest you arrange to have your memory assessed by a professional experienced in memory assessment. In the vast majority of cases, any decline in memory will probably be in the normal range for persons of your age. If it is greater than expected for your age, then the professional will likely refer you to an appropriate specialist for further assessment and treatment. Remember there are lots of strategies to improve your memory issues whatever the causes. Attendance at a memory workshop is an effective and fun way of learning which of the strategies described here are best suited for you.

 

References

Berry, J., Hastings, E., West, R., Lee, C., & Cavanaugh, J. (2010). Memory aging: deficits, beliefs, and interventions. In J.C. Cavanaugh & C.K. Cavanaugh, Eds., Aging in America, Volume 1: Psychological Aspects of Aging.

West, R.L. (2015). Handout as part of her online APA course “Train the Trainer”.

Resources

Robin Lea West Ph.D., University of Florida, rwest.geron@gmail.com

For over 30 years, Dr. West has researched memory function in the aged and conducted workshops designed to help memory difficulties experience by the aged. She also has an online course “Train the Trainer” (see APA website) for professionals who want to conduct similar workshops.

 

Copyright © 2018  Brian S. Scott

 


Category(s):Cognitive Problems Amnesia / Dementia

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore

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