If you can’t find your car keys because you don’t remember where you put them, that’s normal.
If you can’t find your keys because you left them in the refrigerator, that’s a problem.
Memory can be a slippery devil. As comedian Steve Wright once said, “Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”
We all experience some degree of memory loss. It’s a normal part of aging, and it begins when we’re still in our 30s.
But when memory issues become noticeable enough to disrupt your daily life, making it difficult to accomplish things you used to do with ease, or leading to confused behavior that can be unsettling and sometimes even dangerous, that’s when you need help.
If you’re reading this, most likely you’ve reached that point. You’ve either been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, or at the very least, you’re experiencing forgetfulness in a way that’s deeply worrying to you and to people who care about you.
So what can you do about it? These three things:
- Work with your doctor to identify what’s causing your memory loss. It may be something treatable.
- Stoke your mind with good stuff (like healthy food and exercise) that may slow your cognitive decline.
- Try some simple tricks and tools that can make memory problems a lot easier to live with.
If it’s treatable, get it treated
When we’re in our 60s or older and our memory begins to fail us, the first fear is always Alzheimer’s. But memory loss can be caused by a variety of other, treatable conditions. These include:
- An adverse reaction to a medicine.
- A vitamin deficiency.
- A problem with your thyroid, kidney or liver.
- Blood clots in the brain.
- A brain injury caused by a fall or bumping your head.
- Sleep apnea.
- Alcohol abuse.
Your doctor can help you identify the problem, and if it’s something that can be treated, be thankful for that, and follow the treatment plan. The goal is to get your memory back to what’s normal for someone your age. For someone with a treatable condition, that’s very possible.
Attend to the care and feeding of your brain
Whatever degree of memory loss you’re experiencing, and whatever the cause, your brain will do better if you take better care of it.
The things that contribute to cognitive decline are not a mystery. A sedentary lifestyle and the traditional Western diet are two of the biggest cognition killers out there. If you can address those, and a few other important risk factors, you give yourself a fighting chance to delay a further decline in your memory.
Your brain is worth fighting for. To learn more about healthy lifestyle choices that benefit brain health and help protect cognition, I invite you to join me on the Go Cogno Pathway to Better Brain Health. Start here . . .
15 memory hacks to get you through the day
Whatever memory issues you’re facing, here are some handy tools and tips to help you cope.
1. Keep a daily calendar
This one is so obvious that you’ may already be doing it. But if you’re not, it’s a great place to start. Use a calendar to keep track of appointments and tasks. It can be on your computer, or a good old-fashioned wall calendar that others can see, so they can help you stay on schedule.
At the end of each day, check what you have on the calendar for tomorrow, and map out the next day ahead of time. That way, you’ll get up in the morning organized and ready take on the day.
2. Sticky notes
Sticky notes are to the memory challenged what a hammer is to a carpenter. They are a basic tool. You can use them everywhere around the house to remind yourself of something you’re supposed to do — or not do. They also can impart useful information, like the number of scoops of coffee grounds to put in the coffee maker.
You may also want to try laminated lists, which are sticky notes on steroids. Say, for instance, you’re going to the health club to swim. You don’t want to discover that you brought your goggles, towel, flip-flops and earplugs — but left your bathing suit at home. A laminated list of everything you need to put in your gym bag can prevent that.
3. A place for everything, and everything in its place
You can drive yourself mad looking for your car keys, or glasses, or wallet or purse. Have a place where each thing belongs, and focus on putting it there when you’re done with it.
Better yet, try a memory basket, or a memory bin. It’s a single container where you put everything you have a tendency to misplace. If you train yourself that it all goes in the bin, that’s where it’ll be the next time you need it.
4. Mnemonic devices
Spring forward, fall back. Are you supposed to set your clock ahead an hour in November, or back an hour? Most people have trouble remembering that, but it’s easy to remember spring forward, fall back. That’s the beauty of a mnemonic device.
It can be a simple phrase, or an alphabetic prompt. Generations of music students have learned the treble clef via Every Good Boy Does Fine. When you’re having trouble with a task, create a mnemonic prompt and it’ll come to you so much easier.
5. Word associations
It’s embarrassing to forget someone’s name, but that’s one of the most common memory challenges. One trick is to create an association between the name and some quality or trait the person has. The more outrageous the association the easier it is to remember. If Larry is boisterous, tag him as Loud Larry. If Donna has those cute dimples . . . well, you get it.
Here’s an even easier answer. Don’t be embarrassed. It’s OK to say, “I’m not great with names. Could you remind me what your name is?” The person will be glad to. Problem solved, with less awkwardness than you imagined.
6. Draw it
When you’re trying to remember something, thinking about it and then drawing a picture of it can improve your recollection. Scientists call it “dual-coding.” As memory devices go, this one is particularly effective.
In a recent study, subjects were given 30 simple words. Some were then told to draw the word, describe it, or write the word in fancy lettering.
Later, they were asked to list as many words as they can remember. Far and away, the people who did drawings recalled the most words — in some cases, twice as many words as the others. If you sketch it, you’re less likely to forget it.
7. Self-reference effect
Here’s another remarkably effective technique. When you’re trying to remember something, find a way to relate it personally to yourself. A study involving people with memory problems had them use a variety of methods to remember a set of words that represented memory traits.
Some were asked to think of a rhyming word or a definition of the word. Others we’re asked to think about how the trait related to them personally, or to think of a time when they demonstrated that trait.
The last two methods are forms of self-referencing, and people who used them were able to perform nearly three times better on the memory test. If you can find a way to relate a piece of information to yourself, there’s a better chance it will stick in your mind later.
8. The Method of Loci
This one has been around a long time. In fact, it’s ancient. The Romans and Greeks were using it a couple of centuries ago. Loci is plural for locus, meaning location, and according to the Method of Loci, we’re more likely to remember things if we picture them in a specific place we’re familiar with — particularly our household.
Say you’re going out and you want to remember to stop at the butcher shop, the pharmacy and the post office. Start in the kitchen and picture the butcher carving a roast on the counter. Then walk down the hall, and picture the pharmacists standing on the stairway leading to the second floor. Finally, as you go out the door, imagine you’re greeted by the mailman coming up the front walk.
Once you’re out doing errands, mentally retrace your steps through the house, and you’ll be much more likely to remember all three tasks you set out to accomplish.
9. Mobile phone alerts
Some memory tricks are old school, and some are high-tech. Most of us don’t go anywhere these days without our phone, so why not use it as a handy device to jog your memory? You can set the calendar on your phone to give you any variety of alerts and reminders. There are a slew of great apps to help with memory, too.
If you’re not the technical sort, don’t be shy about asking for help. A family member or friend can help you program your phone for these tasks. Once your phone it set up, all you have to do is check the reminders as it serves them to you. It’s no harder than reading an instant message or an email, so don’t worry, you can handle it.
10. Wireless locator devices
If you’re feeling even a little more technologically adventurous, another great tool is a locator device that can help you find car keys or other items you may misplace. Typically, these devices are wireless and work on your phone. They include a little plastic tracker that you can attach to your key chain, or put in your wallet or purse. If you lose that item, your phone can locate it and direct you to it.
These devices are reasonably inexpensive, costing $30 or less. Some of them even work in reverse. If you misplace your phone, the little tracker on your key chain or in your wallet can be used to make your phone ring, so that you can hear it and find it. Ain’t technology amazing?
11. Subscribe to a daily newspaper
This suggestion comes from the Alzheimer’s Society, and given that I’ve worked in the newspaper industry for 35 years and was the editor of three daily papers, it’s particularly near and dear to my heart.
Having a newspaper in the driveway keeps you connected with what the day and date is every morning. A stroll outside to get the paper gives you a bit of fresh air, which is good for the brain. And reading every day is even better for cognition, especially if you’re taking in new information, which a newspaper is chocked with.
12. Try yoga
Practicing yoga not only can enhance your memory, it offers a bonus package of other benefits, including improved mood and greater resiliency. That’s according to a recent study that involved adults over the age of 55 who were experiencing memory problems.
The subjects of the study either played memory games or took a class in Kundalini yoga for a hour a week, and then meditated at home. After 12 weeks, brain scans showed improvements in brain function of those who did yoga and meditated that weren’t found in the other group. Yoga also improved mood, anxiety and coping skills in a way that memory games didn’t, researchers said. Yoga and meditation could be a “simple, safe and low-cost solution” to memory problems, they added.
13. Be an early bird
On a day when facing something that could challenge your memory or thinking skills, tackle it early. For most of us, morning is the most productive time of day. That’s when you’re likely to be at your best, and most up to the challenge.
Later in the day, it’s easy to feel a little drained and lose focus. And the later in the day, the worse it can get. There’s even a term — “sundowners syndrome” — to describe the greater memory loss and confusion some people experience at the end of the day. The sun comes up in the morning, that’s when you’re most likely to be “up” too. Why not take advantage of that?
14. Get enough sleep
One overlooked source of memory problems can be lack of sleep. There’s a perception that we need less sleep as we get older, but nothing could be further from the truth. We need as much sleep in our 60s and 70s as we did in our 20s. Seven to nine hours of sleep is what’s recommended.
Sleep is when we process the information we gained during the day and commit it to memory. A lack of sleep interferes with the encoding of memories. Whatever problems you’re having with memory, letting sleep problems go unaddressed can only make it worse. And whatever you do, don’t self-medicate with over-the-counter sleeping pills. Some have been shown to significantly damage memory. My Pathway to Better Brain Health has a section on sleep, and you can learn more there.
15. Talk it through
Dealing with memory loss can be a real struggle — for both you and your loved ones. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Tell your family about your feelings and your challenges. Discuss how they can support you in coping with your memory problems.
Encourage them to let you work your way through a challenge, rather than doing it for you. Seek their patience in situations where they have to repeat something they’ve already told you. This is tough stuff. You’ll have your good days and your bad days, and so will they. Talking openly about it can help make the ups and down easier to traverse.
Were these tips helpful? If you try one and it works well for you, let me know by posting a comment below. Or if you have other suggestions you want to share with readers, you can post those in the comments too.