Losing keys, forgetting names and not remembering important information for work or study?
Many of us have first-hand experience with the frustrations of memory lapses, and it’s not unusual to be concerned that they are a sign of something sinister. But Professor Kaarin Anstey says most memory lapses are a normal part of the ageing process.
Take the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, that frustrating feeling where you know a word or name or movie title is in your memory, but you just can’t recall it
“From your 40s onwards, people do start to experience that and that is actually normal, it’s not a sign of Alzheimer’s,” Professor Anstey said.
“Most of those tip-of-the-tongue instances resolve themselves within 24 hours; something like 95 per cent of the time you will remember the word.
“People may joke about it being a senior moment but they are very common and everyone experiences them, and that does occur more as you get older.”
In the same way that ageing means changes to other parts of your body, your brain physically changes as you age. Some of these brain changes will affect your memory.
“We can see on brain scans that there is gradual brain atrophy over time. We know that there’s shrinkage of some cells and the loss of some cells,” says Professor Anstey, the director at the Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing at the Australian National University.
When you combine these changes to your brain with other age-related issues, being more prone to getting distracted and having slower reaction times, it’s easy to see how our memory can start to fail us as we age.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to improve your memory. The following tips may help you boost your capacity for recall.
Pay attention and avoid distractions
One reason we forget things is that we never fully processed them into our memory in the first place. To encode a long-term memory in your brain, you need to actively attend to the information.
“When you are introduced to new people, make an effort to remember their name and associate it with something. Rehearse it in your own mind,” Professor Anstey says.
Sometimes, simply reminding yourself to focus on the task at hand — say meeting someone new and learning their name — is all that’s needed.
However, stating what you’re doing out loud can also help memory, for example, “I’m putting my glasses on the kitchen table”.
If you’re trying to process more complex information, try minimising distractions like television or phone calls
Write or record new information
Another way to help yourself stay focused on learning something new is to take a more active role — such as by writing or recording important points.
Taking study notes for instance is generally more effective than simply reading or listening to a body of information.
Keeping a pen and notebook (or using your smartphone) can be handy to record things, like say, where you parked your car in a large shopping centre car park.
Group things together
Organising information into groups makes memorising easier.
That’s why we often recite phone numbers in clusters of three or four digits.
Grouping can also make what you’re learning less “abstract” and give structure to the recall process.
For example, if you have forgotten your shopping list try to recall items by types of products (for example dairy, stationery, toiletries).
Develop association techniques
Developing associations — say with a relevant image, acronym, sentence (acrostic) or rhyme — is another memory-boosting trick.
These memory clues are called mnemonics. For instance, the sentence “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit” can be used to remember the notes on the lines of a treble clef in music (E, G, B, D, F).
Likewise, when you meet someone new called Rosemary, creating a mental image of her face smelling the herb rosemary can make it more likely you will remember her name.
Use your ABC
Another related technique that can be particularly useful for remembering names involves running through the alphabet.
“If you really can’t remember somebody’s name, [try] going through each letter and thinking about each letter and then suddenly when you get to the right letter their name will pop up,” Professor Anstey suggests.
Avoid memory lapse triggers
Fatigue and alcohol are two known triggers for memory lapse, so avoiding these can help in situations where you need to stay sharp.
Aim to get a good night’s sleep before an exam and if important information is likely to be exchanged at say, a work lunch, consider sticking to non-alcoholic drinks.
Get enough sleep
Poor sleep definitely affects memory and is probably underrated as a cause of cognitive problems, Professor Anstey says.
“It’s also a risk factor for depression and cognitive decline. It’s really important to emphasise sleep,” she said.
We need sleep to convert short-term memories to long-term ones. So if you’re sleep deprived, you’re making it really hard for yourself on the memory front.
The Australasian Sleep Association says most adults need 6.5 to 8.5 hours sleep a night to “function and feel they can manage life adequately”.
You can increase the chance of remembering important information if you develop and follow routines for regular more mundane tasks.
So you might make it a ritual to leave your keys and phone in a particular spot (a drawer near your front door, for example) as soon as you get home.
That way, you don’t have to drain your memory thinking about the location when you need to find them to go out.