I once came up with a metaphor I thought perfectly captured the sheer mass of material my classmates and I were expected to memorize in our first two years of medical school: it was like being asked to enter a grocery store and memorize the names of every product in the store, their number and location, every ingredient in every product in the order in which they appear on the food label, and then to do the same thing in every grocery store in the city.
When I look back now I can't imagine how any of us were able to do it. And yet we did. The mind's capacity to store and recall information is truly wondrous. Since I attended medical school we've learned a lot about memory and learning. Though much of what follows are techniques I used to survive my first two years of medical school, much of the science that proves they work is new.
One of the most common complaints I hear in clinical practice is about memory loss. Unfortunately, as a normal part of the aging process, many people start to find they can't bring to mind names, places, and things as easily as they used to be able to do and worry they're facing the beginning of dementia. "Benign forgetfulness" is the name we give to a process that occurs with normal aging in which a memory remains intact but our ability to retrieve it becomes temporarily impaired. Usually we try to describe the name or thing we can't recall and when someone names it for us we instantly remember the word we wanted. As long as this is age-appropriate and doesn't significantly interfere with normal functioning, there seems to be no increased risk for progression to dementia. However, the trick lies in assessing what is and isn't "age-appropriate." Formal testing is sometimes necessary in ambiguous cases. Reassuringly, in one study, patients over the age of 50 who initially presented with what was considered to be benign forgetfulness had only a 9% chance of progressing to dementia. Unfortunately, cognitive impairments other than memory loss are correlated with a higher risk of progression to dementia.
Another reason people often have trouble remembering things is because memory is a function of concentration. Which means when you multitask you tend to forget more easily. Have you ever entered a room only to forget why you did so? More likely you'd remember if you weren't simultaneously planning your dinner for that night and trying to remember the phone number of the person who just left you a message. This also explains why people who suffer from depression or anxiety have a harder time remembering things: both conditions interfere substantially with the ability to concentrate. The strength of a memory is also determined by the emotional state that accompanied the original event. Emotion, negative or positive, tends to embed events in our memory like a chisel carves lines in stone. A double-edged sword for people suffering from PTSD.
Here are three things you can do that have been shown in studies to decrease the risk of mental deterioration as you age:
If the mind is indeed like a muscle (and research is validating that model more and more) then memory may very well be like muscle tone: the more the mind is used, the more robust memory may become. As I've moved on from my medical school days to reach early (very early) middle age, I've found myself experiencing benign forgetfulness far more than I like. As a result, I find myself comforted that the old adage "use it or lose it" is seeming more and more not just to apply to the body but to the mind as well.
Dr. Lickerman's new book The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self is available now. Please read the sample chapter and visit Amazon or Barnes & Noble to order your copy today!