Book addresses memory loss


A new book co-authored by a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis is one-stop shopping for all the questions we have about memory and how serious our lapses might be as we grow older.

Mark McDaniel, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, says the book relies on many academic studies but is written for the lay person.

"Our mission is to give the general public a good idea of what they can reasonably expect from their memory capabilities as they age," says McDaniel, about his new book entitled Memory Fitness: A Guide for Successful Aging, co-authored by Gilles O. Einstein, Ph.D., psychology department chair at Furman University. "It also outlines some reasonable expectations about things people can do to perhaps increase their memory performances."

"As we age," McDaniel explains, "almost every part of neuron function you can think of starts to deteriorate a bit."

In other words, neurons--the nerve cells that make up our brains--naturally lose some functionality throughout a lifetime. This is partially responsible for the "senior moments" and other lapses that people commonly encounter, which McDaniel stresses usually are normal.

One source for all memory concerns

"Older adults that participate in our studies," says McDaniel, "tell us that the information they want us to convey [about memory] is in different sources, but it's just not integrated into one source. What we've tried to do with this book is to integrate basic memory processes and how they change with age, cognitive strategies to improve memory, lifestyle changes like diet and nutrition and exercise and basic information about Alzheimer's."

Despite some normal loss in memory function with age, McDaniel offers strategies to stay sharp. Some of these are surprisingly simple.

"Take courses, teach somebody something, discuss movies or books; do anything that makes you struggle and problem-solve through significant cognitive effort," he suggests. "There are studies that show an association between challenging daily mental activity and memory maintenance as well as less dramatic loss of memory function."

It appears that by challenging yourself, you can better preserve your memory capacities.

Additionally, regular exercise may help.

"I'm increasingly convinced," says McDaniel, "that strength training is an important part of an exercise program that one might undertake to improve brain health."

He notes that just recently, studies have demonstrated women in their 40's and 50's with higher levels of HDL cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol) have lower incidence of Alzheimer's 15 to 20 years later.

Unfortunately, not all memory lapses that come with age are standard. McDaniel notes that an important aspect of Memory Fitness is to help people know what's normal and what isn't.

"Many people are increasingly concerned about Alzheimer's. We try to address this. We present information about what normally occurs with aging in terms of memory loss and we have a long chapter on what occurs when you have Alzheimer's, and what kind of memory loss you have there. We give people the actual questions physicians use to try to determine whether someone has a real problem or not. People can go through them--now, they shouldn't self-diagnose--but they can get a feeling for where they stand, based on their performance relative to normal adults."

McDaniel offers one example of what's to be expected and what isn't.

"Trouble with retrieving old information, say, for example the name of an old classmate--that's normal. Let's say, by comparison, if you're traveling home on a route that you've traveled many times before, and you feel you don't know which way to go--you feel lost--that's abnormal. If it happens briefly – if you have a brief glitch in information retrieval– that's probably normal. But if the whole route seems unfamiliar, that's not normal, and you should take note of it and do something about it."

Daily mental tasks

Besides providing information on Alzheimer's, McDaniel includes practical advice to aid in day-to-day memory tasks.

"Things are tough for people to remember because they're arbitrary--that is, they don't fit into any kind of reasonable logical organization," says McDaniel. "As we age, one of the big problems we have is remembering things that are arbitrary. The key to remembering tough things is to somehow make them meaningful."

To this end, McDaniel puts forward techniques to make information more meaningful, such as the key-word method, which involves finding a small, easy- to- remember word in unfamiliar vocabulary. For example, one might see the word "pear" in the Spanish pero ("dog") and create a visual image that somehow links pears with dogs--say, imagine a dog eating a bowl of pears, or a dog that is pear-shaped.

Of course, if you're worried about your memory, you could always take a nutritional supplement to help. But which one?

In Memory Fitness, McDaniel reviews the different supposed memory-boosters, with the general consensus that research may suggest some memory enhancement, but never with the definitive degree to which these are advertised.

"People that push these supplements as absolute cures or guarantees promise too much," he says. "Research doesn't show this. All it can show is that perhaps these supplements may have some beneficial effects."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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