Keeping Your Memory Sharp

            Have you ever found yourself standing in the kitchen with no idea why you went in there?  Have you spaced out in the middle of a conversation?  Of course you have – we all have. But being betrayed by your memory is disturbing, especially to anyone old enough to be eligible for dementia.  Forgetting occurs more often with advanced age, but over 90% of older Americans do not have Alzheimer’s Disease, and over 85% do not have other dementia.  It is important to address memory slips if you have suspicions that they are more ominous, but, for most people, “senior moments” are annoyances rather than diseases.

            Even for healthy seniors, memory lapses can be embarrassing, frustrating, and potentially dangerous. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to sharpen your working memory. The single most important aspect of remembering is paying attention. Advanced age brings new challenges like difficulty hearing, poor eyesight, or concerns with balance and walking.  These efforts demand attention and make it harder to recall information or form new memories.  It becomes increasingly important to focus on the task at hand, rather than doing two or three things at once. Trying to watch TV and talk on the phone while paying bills is a sure-fire way to accidentally send the rent check to the electric company.

            In our fast-paced society, impatient grocery clerks, time-pressed medical offices, and busy family members put pressure on others to hurry.  That pressure is unhealthy.  The sense of urgency makes it hard to concentrate, but you have a right to resist.  If you find yourself feeling anxious or frustrated, take a moment to collect your thoughts. Come to a complete stop in your activity, take a breath, and then calmly proceed at your own pace.  Most people will respond to a “calming moment” with respectful patience. The few who do not will benefit from the lesson in courtesy. We should all feel free to say, “Give me a minute”, when we need one.

            Forgetting the day of the week or the date is a common symptom of retirement. Work routines gives us built-in ways of remembering: Monday is the staff meeting, Saturday is the day to sleep late.  For a retiree, it is quite easy to lose track of the weekdays. To stay up to date, read the newspaper, go on regular social outings, and correspond with friends. An eye-catching wall calendar can be a boon to daily awareness, especially if it is placed on a prominent wall and used to record appointments, birthdays, and other events.

            Seniors can lose confidence in memory skills even when there is little real cause for concern.  One study found that 75%  of seniors reported memory problems, even though the vast majority performed normally on an objective test.  Improving any skill is easier when you are optimistic and motivated to try.  But, there is one comfort in an older person’s worries about memory: seniors who fret about forgetting are less likely to have serious memory impairments, because those diseases often make it difficult even to recognize that one’s thinking is faulty.

            So-called “senior moments” do not need to be a source of anxiety and distress, but they do need to be a wake-up call to pay attention.  Next blog, I’ll talk about the minority of seniors for whom memory problems are a source of disability and how to know when it is time to seek professional help.  But remember that every elder can benefit from taking steps to keep memory skills sharp.  Memory is often the key to remaining independent, safe, and well.