“There are three side effects of acid: enhanced long-term memory, decreased short-term memory, and I forget the third.” — Timothy Leary
Several years ago I attended a lecture by a neurologist. During the Q & A session, someone in the audience asked whether it’s troublesome when you leave a ball game and can’t remember where you parked your car. This scenario is not troublesome at all, the neurologist assured him. “It happens all the time, and to a lot of people. And much more often than you think. What would be troublesome is if you forgot what a car is.”
Depending on how things ordinarily work out for you after ball games, you might feel consoled by the good doctor’s off-the-cuff observation. I know I was. According to a nonprofit mental health website, helpguide.org, a certain amount of forgetfulness in little things is entirely normal: “We’ve all misplaced keys, blanked on an acquaintance’s name, or forgotten a phone number.” But we need to distinguish between momentary memory lapses and dementia.
If you head into the tool shed to get something, you shouldn’t panic if you forgot why you went there. Eventually it will come to you. As will the name of the new friend you met last week at a networking meeting and then promptly forgot; or the place where you put your keys.
True dementia, on the other hand, is an insidious and disabling process. Those suffering from it will cease to be able to function, and will ultimately lose touch with reality.
Here are four steps we can take to keep everyday forgetfulness at bay.
Keep Your Mind Engaged — Towards the end of his life, the legendary novelist and essayist Norman Mailer took to doing crossword puzzles to keep his brain active. You’d think writing and reading would have been sufficient for him. But he did what he felt he had to in order to stay sharp.
You should do the same thing. Take a course, join a book club, or learn a musical instrument. Especially if you’re retired, an engaged mind will help you ward off memory loss, and retard the aging process.
Get Regular Exercise — Exercise promotes growth. A study in the Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences in 2011 revealed that adults who walked for 40 minutes three times a week experienced growth in the hippocampus area of the brain, an area tied to spatial memory. Walking is also a hedge against depression, a condition in and of itself that can cause memory loss.
Cut Back on Alcohol — The proverbial call for moderation in all things holds true for alcohol. A couple glasses of wine 4-5 times a week can be beneficial, particularly if you drink red wine. But once you rev up your drinking habit, your memory stands to suffer. A recent article in The Guardian points to a study in the journal Neurology, which followed the drinking habits of a large group of men and women. Follow-up testing of cognitive function, particularly in men, revealed a sharp decline in how the subjects remembered things.
Say Things Out Loud — It seems silly, but it works. If you announce out loud to yourself why you’re going into a certain room, or where in the parking lot you left your car, you’ll remember these things better. Verbalizing the information helps you focus, and protects your mind against distraction. For similar reasons, when meeting new people, it helps immensely if you repeat their name aloud as soon as you’re introduced.
One more thing — learn to relax. Generating anxiety over whether you’ll remember something is probably the best way to forget it.