Twelve years ago, Dr. Maureen O’Connor, a neuropsychologist at the Bedford, Mass., Veterans Administration Hospital, started seeing patients as young as 45 in the hospital’s memory care clinic.
Many were panicked about symptoms they suspected were early signs of dementia, including misplacing their car keys, forgetting where they parked in a shopping center lot, and not remembering the name of someone at a party.
Yet testing and subsequent interviewing revealed that their capacities for recollection were normal, said O’Connor, who spoke recently at Birch Hill, a retirement community in Manchester.
Their experiences are common complaints of people who are middle-aged or older — and their anxiety was making matters worse because worry and fear can undermine memory — especially in the midst of stressful events.
According O’Connor and neurologist Dr. Andrew Budson, co-authors of “Seven Steps to Managing Your Memory,” many annoying and embarrassing memory lapses can be solved by practicing memory-strengthening techniques. Their recommendations include:
Practice active attention. That means pay attention with purpose. For instance, when reading or listening to news or something you’d like to remember, notice how you feel about it, what its implications are, and the questions it raises. Similarly, when parking your car in a crowded lot, make note of your surroundings and any landmarks — don’t think about what you’ll by the store or the next errand you’ll run.
Minimize distractions while learning new things. Get rid of clutter in your environment, which can make it hard to concentrate. Turn off your phone, radio, television and e-mail. Tell others not to interrupt while you’re learning new material. Breaks are important — 10 minutes every hour will usually reboot a brain that’s suffering from information fatigue.
Make storage locations a habit. And if you want to be able to find things quickly, don’t keep more than you can maintain in designated, organized places. Decide where you’ll put your keys — perhaps a drawer or on hook in the coat closet. If forget to do that, retrace your steps. More than misplacing your keys, not being able to remember your recent locations might be a sign of memory decline.
Repeat information you want to remember. Saying it out loud helps. Repeat it once or twice after hearing it, then again 30 minutes and an hour later. Saying it out loud enhances your focus and engagement with the material. Think about how it makes you feel. Having an emotional connection will boost your recollection later.
Write it down. Make flash cards, take notes, write a summary or a list of key points. Writing the gist of something requires us to process it deeply — which makes us more likely to remember it later, even without glancing at notes.
There are several keys to remembering names. First, relax and think of the contexts in which you have seen someone — sometimes that’s enough. Learn the name well in the first place — that remains repeating it after you meet, using it conversation, and again when you say goodbye. Sales representatives employ this technique, which actually helps people make friends.
Review names before attending an event. Ask your spouse, friend, or host who will be there. If you can’t remember their name when you see them, confess politely. Try something like this: “It’s so nice to see you! I remember our last conversation about your vacation. I’m sorry, I’m terrible with names...” When they say it, repeat it. Then repeat it again. People are flattered by your interest — and that you remembered seeing them in the first place.