You know you’re in trouble when you find the scissors you were looking for on the counter near the half eaten lunch, which you meant to finish after wrapping up that article, but did you send the email yet? Wait — is it Tuesday or Wednesday?
Welcome to my world. It seems to be well populated.
Type the above phrase into a Google search and you’ll get pages upon pages of links. Everything from “Memory Problems at Menopause” to “Forgetful 40-Somethings.”
I know forgetfulness is a problem among women of my age. One of the common discussions in the book groups I belong to is just how far out from our meetings can the book be read…and still remembered. For me, I have about a two-week window to retain character names and a clear grasp of plot contrivances. Further out, and I’m reduced to confusion on smaller details (and some bigger ones).
In boxing, we memorize combos. One day, I reduced my partner and coach to laughter when I called out, “Let’s start over from, you know, 1-2-thing-thing.” My brain couldn’t catch up with what I was trying to say. It was there, lurking, but I couldn’t remember exactly what the words were, though my body could perform the motions.
Worrying About Alzheimer’s
When I was in my 30s and 40s, my big medical fear was cancer. I just knew that malignancies were lurking somewhere behind each doctor’s visit. Breast cancer scared me in particular, as my father and his younger sister (two out of three siblings in the family) developed the disease — and all the health care professionals get a little confounded over a father/daughter breast cancer link. I’ve known a fair amount of people who’ve had loved ones stricken with cancer or faced treatment themselves, so the Big C was the scary monster lurking under my bed.
Now, the nightmare invading my sleep is losing my mind. It seems to be a wild card, not something I can carefully avoid through clean living, exercise, and regular check-ups. When both my mother’s parents developed dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease within a short span (I’m not sure which diagnosis went with which; the terms are often used interchangeably, but these are two different conditions*), I had clearly lost the grandparents I’d grown up loving…though they lived for several more years.
Many of my friends’ parents are suffering from memory loss to some substantive degree. And let’s not even talk about recent books and movies focusing on related conditions, such as Still Alice, The Notebook, and Elegy for Iris. It’s gut wrenching to watch these stories play out, whether in real life or on the screen.
* Find Out More: “What is the Difference Between Alzheimer’s and Dementia?”
When Is Forgetfulness Serious?
Recently, I seem to be more forgetful and easily distracted. I’ll neglect to finish the task I was working on, distracted by some bit of research, the lure of a sunny moment outside, or that item that needs to be put away. The next thing I know, I’m somewhere else, working away at an activity I didn’t really start out intending to do.
According to this 2012 article in Harvard Health Publications, that kind of forgetfulness is not worrisome. In fact, it’s quite usual and only one of several ways the article categorizes routine forgetfulness.
7 Perfectly Normal Memory Fails
Absentmindedness. You can’t find your car keys. Why did I walk in this room? Absentmindedness occurs when the mind is distracted and doesn’t lock onto the necessary information — easy come, easy go.
Bias. Basically, personal perceptions create flawed memories; you remember it in a way that is shaped by your particular view of the events. (The “summer of lice,” for example, is a horribly vivid memory of mine, though our kids recall a kinder, gentler period without too much trial and tribulation.)
Blocking. That’s what I was doing with my boxing combo fail. The idea was there, but there was a temporary inability to retrieve the information. It’s why you can’t remember that guy’s name, even though you’ve met multiple times. Thankfully, science says that most people are able to dig up the blocked memory within a minute.
Misattribution. Significant others catch their partners in this all the time. Part of the memory is correct (the basic story is right) but details are credited inappropriately (i.e., just which one of you found that incredible restaurant).
Persistence. Now this is something that I haven’t experienced myself. This refers to troubling memories, feelings, and fears that keep reoccurring (think flashbacks). The article described persistence as being “tormented by things people wish they could forget but can’t.”
Suggestibility. It’s when my hubby tells the story about that time in college where he and some buddies created this bogus art installation out of junk. The only thing is, he wasn’t actually there — that was me. He’s just heard the story told enough times that he’s put himself in it.
Transience. Hello, book club — this refers to losing information over time. You knew how to speak Spanish once, but now you can’t remember. This is perfectly natural, and in fact healthy; the brain jettisons stuff that it doesn’t need to remember all the time. (Now, whether your anniversary is “necessary” becomes hotly debatable.)
Can I Prevent Memory Loss?
When does normal memory loss become abnormal? That’s the rub — knowing when the casual and occasional crosses the line to become a problem. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) has a great article on this (“Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask for Help”); because there is so much varied information, I’m not going into that here.
I am, however, going to share the NIA’s great take-aways for helping to keep the mind and memory healthy.
Exercise Regularly. The science is still out on just how physical movement works in this capacity, but I’m going to assume it does. There’s such a mind/body connection that it seems intuitive for mobile, energetic people have more flexible, engaged minds. Besides, it’s good for me anyway, so I’ll keep active.
Relieve Emotional Problems. Stress, anxiety, and depression can all be linked to forgetfulness. It’s important to treat emotional problems with exercise, stimulation, therapy, or medication when they arise.
Stay Involved. Activities, hobbies, time with friends — all of these things keep us involved in the world and flex that mental muscle. This includes working memory by making connections (remember absentmindedness?). Actively writing down tasks, appointments, information can help strengthen connections, which improves retention.
Be Drug Free. Studies have shown that heavy alcohol use in middle age can speed up memory loss. The FDA lists drugs (prescription, over-the-counter, and illicit) that can impair memory, so understand what you’re taking and any pyschological effects it may have.