Memory - by Dr David Delvin

Is your memory QUITE what it was? If you’re over 45, the answer is almost certainly ‘No’!

But that’s nothing to worry about. It’s a medical fact that human memory does deteriorate very slightly with age. So if you find that you forget things, that DOESN’T mean that you’re getting ‘senile dementia’ or developing Alzheimer’s. (But we will deal with these conditions at the end of this article.)

You see, research indicates that memory is at its absolute best when you’re very young. That’s why we all learned our native language so fast by the age of about three! And throughout their schooldays, children can – if they try – pick up prodigious amounts of knowledge.

During the college or university years of life, memory is still pretty good. But by the time you’re in your late 20s … well, this is the period when most people find that for the first time, they have to keep an appointments  diary – or else write notes on a wall-calendar, to remind them what they’re supposed to be doing.

By their 30s or 40s, nearly all busy people know that they can’t rely solely on their memory to keep track of everything. In order to run their lives, they need such ‘aide-memoires’ as:

  • Personal organizers
  • Desk diaries
  • Year planners
  • Secretaries!

And when you get into your 50s or 60s, you’re liable to find that you forget quite a lot of things. Things like:

  • The date of your daughter’s birthday;
  • Your own email address;
  • Your car registration number;
  • The name of that chap down the road who you’ve known for 20 years or more …

CHANGES IN THE BRAIN

Why does all this occur?  It’s because of the fact from about age 20 onwards, you start to LOSE brain cells – fortunately, in only very small numbers.  Furthermore, your brain makes less of the special ‘transmitter chemicals’ which carry messages around the central nervous system.  The brain also shrinks very slightly as you get older.

What tends to happen as a result of all this is that your memory for RECENT events becomes not quite as good as it used to be.

Generally, memory for events of long ago remains pretty well perfect.

Thus, many people of 70 or 75 are annoyed to find that although they can recall the events of (say) 1945 fairly clearly, they tend to be a teeny bit vague about what took place in 2003.  

Also, a lot of people in their retirement years do find that they have occasional slight difficulty in recalling precisely what occurred (or what was said) a few hours or even a few minutes ago.

FORGETTING WHAT YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE DOING

That very slight loss of short-term memory can have some annoying effects.  For instance, it’s extremely common for people of 55-plus to walk into a room – and find that they’ve forgotten what they went there for!

What has happened here is this:

  •        The person decides that he’s going to go into (say) the sitting-room, to look for the Radio Times;
  •         But she doesn’t really ‘FIX’ it firmly in her memory – because she’s thinking about various other things as well;
  •         She wanders into the sitting-room;
  •         However, by the time she gets there, the short-term memory that said ‘Find the Radio Times’ has gone;
  •         So she just stands there – feeling rather bewildered!

This particular memory-problem is extremely common, and it can have some rather bizarre effects. For instance, I remember a chap who suddenly found himself standing in front of the open fridge with a hammer in his hand – and with no idea why …

The explanation was actually fairly simple:

  • He’d been working in his garden shed, and had suddenly realized that his wife had asked him to mend a kitchen cupboard;
  • So he’d picked up his hammer and ambled back to the house – while thinking about something else;
  • When he’d got to the kitchen, he was actually thinking about a golf match;
  • In his mind, he had some vague recollection that, once he was in the kitchen, he should OPEN something;
  • But instead of opening the cupboard, he opened the fridge instead;
  • So there he was, standing in front of the open fridge with a hammer – and wondering WHY!

You’ll observe that in each of those two cases, there was a minor ‘glitch’ in short-term memory. Very importantly, the person had failed to ‘fix’ that memory in the mind – so that it soon slipped away.

The lesson here is this. If something is really important, always FIX it in your mind. DON’T just tuck it away in a corner of your brain, as though it was of no importance at all.

REMEMBERING NAMES

This problem of ‘failing to fix things in your mind’ is particularly likely to happen when you MEET someone – but fail to take a proper note of their name.

Again and again, people are introduced to each other – and five minutes’ later, one of them can’t remember the other’s name! This is particularly likely to happen at parties, or other social do’s – where drink is flowing. You see, alcohol isn’t exactly very good for the memory!

Now the trick you need to remember is to try really hard to ‘FIX’ the other person’s name in your mind. This is how to do it:

  • When you’re introduced to someone, repeat his name – for example, reply:  ‘Hello, Mr Smith.’
  • In the next few sentences of the conversation, repeat his name each time you speak (‘That’s very interesting, Mr Smith’).
  • While you’re talking, look carefully at his face and silently say to yourself something like ‘This is Mr Smith – with the big, black moustache.’
  • Very important: try and link his name in your mind with an IMAGE that will help you recall his name!

In the example, I’ve given, the obvious thing would be to imagine Mr Smith as a BLACKSMITH – bashing a red-hot horseshoe on his anvil.

You might think this is difficult, but in fact you can do it with most surnames. I used to have difficulty remembering the name of an amiable doctor called ‘Happel’ – until I decided to think of him as a nice, rosy, old APPLE!

Similarly, one or two people have told me that they remember MY surname by imagining me digging (i.e.‘delving’) in a garden …

REMEMBERING NUMBERS

Another problem for many over-50s is the question of remembering NUMBERS – phone numbers, credit card numbers, car numbers and so on.

Memory experts have found clever ways to help with this one. In particular, they recommend that you pick a ‘symbol’ for each of the 10 digits of our numerical system. Remembering these symbols is easier than trying to recall the numbers themselves.

For instance, you could perhaps choose the following symbols for each digit:

  •         ‘1’ could be a maypole;
  •         ‘2’ could be a swan;
  •         ‘3’ could be a set of cricket stumps;
  •         ‘4’ could be a railway signal;
  •         ‘5’ could be an expectant mum with a bump;
  •         ‘6’ could be a tadpole;
  •         ‘7’ could be a scythe;
  •         ‘8’ could be a fat lady with her waist pulled in tight;
  •         ‘9’ could be a safety pin;
  •         ‘0’ could be a tunnel.

Now... let’s see how it works. Suppose that somebody gives you a telephone number, and you want to try and remember it. Let us suppose that the number is:  02173 468590                      

That isn’t easy to memorise. But people who are good with this system will just make up an ‘instant fantasy’ in their minds. This daft -- but easily remembered -- story could go as follows:

‘Out of a railway tunnel (0) comes a swan (2), riding along the track on a maypole (1). He’s waving a scythe (7), which he uses to chop down some nearby cricket stumps (3). Then he passes a signal (4) which is being operated by a giant tadpole (6).

Watching him go past are a fat lady (8) and an expectant mum (5) – who are held together by a big safety pin (9)! And finally, he vanishes into another rail tunnel (0).  Result: 0217 – 346 – 8590.’

Yes, it sounds barmy. But this is one of the main tricks used by those music- hall ‘Memory Men’ who can recall long list of numbers with great ease. And it works best if you pick very flamboyant stories – perhaps even rather ‘naughty’ ones …

WAYS TO HELP YOU KEEP TRACK OF THINGS

Famous memory experts – like Tony Buzan, who has written many excellent books on the subject – have come up with lots of ways to help you run your life efficiently, even though your memory is not quite as brilliant as it was 30 years ago.

These techniques include:

  • Sticking to a ROUTINE;
  • Keeping good LISTS of things you need to remember;
  • Always having a PAD AND PEN beside the phone;
  • Carrying a DIARY (or organizer) – and having a desk-diary as back-up;
  • Making sure that you always put important things – like KEYS – in the same place;
  • Memorising important lists (like shopping lists) by imagining that each separate item is in a different room of your house – and then just mentally running through the rooms to see what’s in there.

HOW CAN YOU TELL IF MEMORY PROBLEMS ARE SERIOUS?

So if you only have MINOR memory problems, of the kind we’ve talked about, there’s no need for concern. This is one of the things that happens with growing older – and you can defeat it by using the various tricks we’ve mentioned above.

But if you -- or your relatives -- think that memory difficulties are affecting your daily life (for instance, if you can’t remember where your local shops are), then it’s time to take action.

The first thing is to get your memory assessed professionally. Begin by going to your family doctor. These days, many GPs know how to do what’s called a ‘Mini-Memory Assessment,’ in which they ask a patient a series of questions, ranging from the very easy (‘Who is the Prime Minister?’ to the fairly difficult).

If there’s any doubt at all, you’ll probably be referred to a specialist at your nearest large hospital for further assessment. Also, some parts of the country have excellent ‘Memory-Testing Clinics,’ to which GPs can send patients.

It shouldn’t take the professionals very long to find out whether everything is OK – or whether you really do have some serious memory impairment.

CAUSES OF SERIOUS MEMORY IMPAIRMENT

So what are the causes of significant impairment of memory? These are the main ones:

  •         DEPRESSION. A lot of depressed people can’t remember things very well, and they may mistakenly think they have dementia (see below). In fact, when their depression is successfully treated, the memory will return to normal.
  •         HEAD INJURIES. Anyone who’s had a really bad head injury (or even repeated small injuries) may start having memory troubles.
  •         ALCOHOL. Long-term alcohol abuse is notorious for causing serious memory problems.
  •         DEMENTIA. This is a medical word meaning irreversible loss of intellect. That’s usually due to progressive (and eventually total) loss of memory. Unfortunately, dementia is becoming commoner – but this is probably just because of the fact that people are living much longer.

Dementia can be of various types, but the commonest are:

  • Alzheimer’s disease (50% of all cases of dementia). This is a progressive brain degeneration whose actual cause still isn’t understood. Anti-Alzheimer’s drugs can sometimes help a little.
  • Vascular or arteriosclerotic (‘senile’) dementia (20% of all cases of dementia). This is a memory-loss condition due to degeneration in the arteries that supply the brain – and it is often exacerbated by strokes.
  • Mixed Alzheimer’s and vascular – 20% of cases.

If you suspect any form of dementia – in relatives or even in yourself – do ask a GP as soon as possible for an assessment. Please look on the bright side: a lot of folk who THINK they are sliding into dementia turn out to have nothing more than a slightly ‘iffy’ memory!

Q. Would taking vitamins and minerals help my memory?

A. Most doctors would say ‘No’ to this. However, there is no harm in taking correct doses (NOT excessive ones, please) of vitamins and minerals – especially if your diet is rather lacking in them.

Q. These days, I occasionally find that I can’t produce the correct word for something quite simple – like a frying-pan or a lawn-mower. Is this serious?

A. After the age of 50, a lot of people have occasional difficulty in ‘producing’ the name of an object. Provided it really IS only occasional, it doesn’t matter.

Q. I have terrible trouble remembering numbers. Is it true that there’s some kind of ‘rhyming slang’ that would help me?

A. Yes, there is a system used by people who have trouble remembering digits – and also by some people who gamble on cards!  It involves having a list of 10 objects, which rhyme with numbers. For instance, one elderly bridge player managed to improve his ‘card recall’ enormously by using this plan: sun (1); glue (2); pea(3); door (4); hive (5); sticks (6); heaven (7); bait (8); pine (9); and hero (zero).

© Dr D Delvin / Retirement Matters Ltd 2007