We all have times when we find ourselves upstairs with no idea what we went up for and, as the years go by, such episodes tend to become more common
Ron Bracey, consultant in clinical psychology at the Brain Injury Centre, Banstead, explains: ‘There are minor changes in the brain′s processing speed, beginning in our 20s, which mean that certain things become harder to recall. Episodic memory — the ability to update your brain′s “diary” — becomes less reliable and as the years pass you may forget things unless you write them down. Working memory for things like telephone numbers also becomes less efficient.’
All sorts of physical factors can affect our memories including diet, illness, the menopause and dementia, which according to the Alzheimer’s Society affects 1 in 14 people aged 65 and over and as many as 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 . However, according to Mr Bracey, many of us develop a kind of mental hypochondria, when we imagine that our memory lapses are more sinister than they really are.
Dr Chris Moulin, lecturer in cognitive neuropsychology at the University of Leeds, agrees: ‘On the whole you are aware of your lapses in memory and attempt to put them right. Stress, tension and worry are the biggest memory saboteurs. Anxiety about being forgetful can make things worse.’
Monitoring your memory: what′s normal and what′s not
‘The early signs
of dementia can be subtle and there′s a huge grey area but by and large it′s
the quantity of memory lapses that may suggest you have a problem. We all
occasionally forget why we went into a room but if you are constantly doing it
or forgetting not just your neighbour′s name but that of your grandchild, there
may be more cause to worry,’ says Dr Chris Moulin.
10 early signs of dementia
Early signs of dementia can include :
- Recent memory loss
It′s normal to forget an appointment and then remember it later but someone with more serious memory loss may forget things like this more often and never remember them afterwards.
- Difficulty with familiar tasks
It′s easy to get distracted and forget to turn off the dinner. Someone with more severe memory loss may not only forget to serve it but forget they even made it.
- Language problems
We all have problems finding the right word occasionally but someone with dementia may forget simple ones like ‘house’ or ‘car’.
- Disorientation of time and place
When you′re busy you may forget the date or where you′re going. People with more serious memory loss may become lost in their own street.
- Lack of judgement
Dementia affects memory and concentration, which in turn impacts on judgement. This may be manifested in acts such as dangerous driving.
- Difficulty with abstract thinking
It′s normal to find it hard to balance your bank account but it becomes more serious if you forget what the figures mean and what to do with them.
- Losing things
Everyone loses their keys or glasses but someone with serious memory loss may constantly put things in strange places.
- Changes in mood or behaviour
We all have bad moods but someone with more serious problems may have dramatic mood swings for no clear reason.
- Personality change
Personality can change slightly as we get older but suddenly becoming suspicious, fearful or uncommunicative is more worrying.
- Loss of initiative
It is natural to get fed up with doing the cooking or to find certain social activities a chore but someone with dementia may become uninterested in things they used to enjoy.
Fortunately, researchers are finding more and more ways to boost memory capacity. Memory experts Dr Jo Iddon, of the department of academic neurosurgery, Addenbrooke′s Hospital, Cambridge, and Dr Huw Williams, clinical psychologist, Oliver Zangwill Centre for Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, Cambridge recommend the following strategies for improving your memory:
Listing what you have to do each day helps you remember and achieve your goals.
If you′re constantly losing things like your keys, always keep them in the same place.
If you often forget what you went into a room for, focus and don′t let your mind wander. If you do forget, stop and mentally retrace your steps.
If you have trouble remembering names, listen, repeat and try to think of a visual cue to aid your memory.
If something is on the tip of your tongue, go through the alphabet or think of a context or related item as a prompt.
Other techniques that could help to boost your memory include:
Challenge your brain
‘Mental stimulation keeps your brain healthy and helps improve mental capacity,’ says Ron Bracey. ‘Try puzzles, crosswords, Sudoko, learning a language and computer games. They all create new pathways in the brain and help increase mental focus.’
Half an hour of physical activity three times a week can cause a significant increase in brainpower, according to research from the US Duke University Medical Center. Exercise increases circulation to the brain and in particular to areas in the forebrain, which are concerned with planning and organisation.
Creative activities such as painting can help improve memory. ‘Anything new engages the brain and helps to strengthen memory,’ says Mr Bracey. Better still, choose an activity that uses both brain and body — like learning to dance. Research shows that muscle activity helps activate brain cell receptors.
Bob Stickgold, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, discovered that for optimum learning we need a period of deep sleep at the start of the night and a period of REM (Rapid eye movement) or dreaming sleep towards the end. He found that if sleep is cut short, learning is impaired.
For more information on improving your memory or detecting dementia be sure to read our helpful articles ‘Dementia dilemma’, ‘Active mind’ and ‘Give your brain a work out’
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