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How I Tackled My Memory Loss Problem: A Case Study

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 17 Mar 2010 | comments*Discuss
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“The thing that always scared me the most about growing old was not the wrinkles or the bad hips or even stuff like heart disease and cancer – it was the thought of my mind going,” says Emily, a retired school teacher and widow, living with her two greyhounds. “I mean, people joke about it – you know, getting old and getting Alzheimers and all that - but the reality is actually quite horrible when you start forgetting things or don’t feel like your brain is as sharp as it used to be. It’s really quite unsettling!”

In fact, being a schoolteacher, Emily was used to having lots of facts and figures at her fingertips – but recently, she had noticed that she was often having trouble recalling someone’s name or address – and even struggling to remember the character or plot points of some of her favourite films and novels!

The truth about memory...

With her 60th birthday fast approaching, Emily decided she wasn’t going to just sit and let her brain turn into a vegetable. And in fact, she was delighted to discover, after some research, that memory loss was not something that had to come with ageing – it is actually preventable with some ‘brain training exercises’ and healthy lifestyle habits.

“See, I always thought that your memory was just based on how much information your brain could store so maybe as you got older, couldn’t really store as much as you used to when you were young or you ran out of space or something!” Chuckles Emily. “But actually, your memory is really a series of neural pathways – like connections between the nerves in your brain – and so your ability to retrieve information is actually dependent on knowing the path to get there. So it’s not like you can’t store new things – you can store them fine – you just have trouble remembering where you put things, so to speak!”

The Old Cliché: Use it or lose it

When you are young, Emily discovered, the brain is very quick at retrieving information but as you get older – and more importantly, use it less – the mechanism for retrieving information in the brain gets a bit “rusty”. Yes, of course, there is some deterioration that comes naturally with age but this deterioration is dependent not just on the number of years since you were born but also on your lifestyle and habits. Like a muscle, the more you use it, the more powerful your memory will remain.

“Basically, I could exercise my brain through specific activities and this would help stop my memory going,” says Emily. “Like for example, I’d always loved doing crossword puzzles but just got out of the habit of doing them – so I started doing them again. And I’d always wanted to learn chess so I got my nephew to teach me and joined a chess club. I’m not very good at it but it’s good fun!”

A little change for a big difference...

Emily also found that it helped to change some of her daily habits. “I started changing the way I did some things - lazy habits I’d fallen into – so that I could start using my brain more. Like for example, everyone always told me to just programme phone numbers into my mobile but I started making an effort to learn some of my most frequently used numbers and punching them in from memory, rather than always relying on going through my Address Book on the phone. You know what? I actually found that it was faster to dial numbers from memory than to have to find them in my Contacts list!” laughs Emily.

Emily also found that it helped to start writing things down. She started making lists and notes of things to remind herself and found that just the fact of organising the information in her mind and writing it down on paper helped her to remember things better.

Better memory - better life!

“You know what was the best thing about all this?” says Emily. “Because I started doing all these new activities and things, I actually made a lot of new friends! And every time I could do something that relied on my memory – like dialling a number without having to look it up – I just felt great - it really helped my confidence. So in a way, tackling my memory loss wasn’t a horrible thing – it’s been one of the best things I’ve ever done!”

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