A certain amount of forgetfulness is to be expected with age. Most people find it more difficult to recall names and words as they get older. This type of forgetfulness is by no means a symptom of dementia. The difference between the normal forgetfulness that increases with age-known as age-associated memory impairment-and dementia is that the former is frustrating but not disabling.
Another reassuring difference between normal forgetfulness and dementia: People who worry about memory loss are less likely to suffer from a serious memory condition. By contrast, people who do have a serious memory impairment tend to be unaware of their lapses, and do not worry about them or attribute them to other causes. Nonetheless, if memory lapses interfere with normal daily functioning or if close friends and relatives believe the lapses are serious, the underlying cause may be more complex.
While the minor memory lapses that occur with age-associated memory impairment can’t be eliminated, there are a number of strategies you can try in order to organize yourself, protect against forgetting, and boost recall.
1. Place commonly lost items in a designated spot. If you’re prone to losing certain items, such as keys or eyeglasses, pick a spot in your home and always put the items back there after using them.
2. Write things down. If you have trouble remembering phone numbers or appointments, write them down and place the list in a conspicuous spot. Making a daily to-do list will remind you of important tasks and obligations. The simple acts of writing notes and making lists reinforce memory.
3. Say words out loud. Saying “I’ve turned off the stove” after doing so will give you an extra verbal reminder when you later try to recall whether the stove is still on. Incorporating people’s names into the conversation immediately after you have met them serves the same purpose. For example, saying “Very nice to meet you, Jennifer,” will help consolidate your memory of the name.
4. Use memory aids. Use a pocket notepad, cell phone, wristwatch alarm, voice recorder, or other aids to help you remember what you need to do or to keep track of information.
5. Use visual images. When learning new information, such as a person’s name, create a visual image in your mind to make the information more vivid and, thus, more memorable. For example, if you’ve just been introduced to a Mr. Hackman, visualize him hacking his way through a dense jungle with a machete.
6. Group items using mnemonics. A mnemonic is any technique used to help you remember. For example, when memorizing lists, names, addresses, and so on, try alphabetizing them or grouping them as an acronym-a word made from the first letters of a series of words (for example, NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Using rhymes (for instance, “The car is not a plane; it’s parked on Main.”) or creating stories that connect each element to be remembered is also helpful. The more compact or meaningful the mnemonic or story you devise, the easier it will be to remember the information.
7. Concentrate and relax. Many environmental stimuli compete for your attention at any given time. To remember something, concentrate on the items to be remembered. Pay close attention to new information, and try to avoid or block out distractions. It helps when you believe the information is important. Mentally telling yourself, “This is important,” alerts your brain that the information needs to be stored. It is also helpful to relax and take a few deep breaths when trying to remember. Have you ever learned something thoroughly and then forgotten it during a test? Anxiety and stress can inhibit recall. Slowing down and relaxing can make a difference. Learning a relaxation technique, such as deep breathing or muscle-relaxing exercises, may help.
8. Get plenty of sleep. During sleep, the brain consolidates and firms up newly acquired information. Studies indicate that people are better at remembering recently learned information the next day if they have had a good night’s sleep.