Monday, 09 February 2009
Short Term Memory Shot to Hell
[EDITORIAL NOTE: Two more people have added their workspace photos to the Where Elders Blog feature: M.E. of XtremeEnglish and Ronni Prior of Ronni's Rants updated her previous listing now that she has changed the look - a before and after series. You can send a photo of your workpace too. Here are the instructions.
ITEM: I go the kitchen for a glass of water. I am momentarily distracted because the cat wants a pet and then I return to the library before I recall that I am thirsty.
ITEM: I bundle myself into my winter outdoor gear and walk the six blocks to the local mini-grocery for a single item – a loaf of their excellent sour dough bread. While I’m there, the owner offers me a taste of a new cheese he has received. I buy a chunk and return home without the bread.
ITEM: I go to the bathroom to pluck a hair that is annoying me on my upper lip. But first, I decide, I need to pee. I return to my laptop where the hair again irritates me.
Basically, these days, I do many things twice. I shudder to think of the day it will take three trips and, eventually, more to get through each minor task of a day. Come to think of it, repeating tasks that should need to be done only once might account for why hours speed by without accomplishing as much as I want.
It’s not as though these memory glitches haven’t always happened. All through my life there have been episodes of, for example, finding myself standing in a room wondering why I’m there. I don’t know if the number of incidents has increased or if it only appears so because memory loss is so fearful to contemplate as we age – wondering if each glitch is a sign of incipient dementia.
Poking around the web and perusing my collection of books on aging over the past few days reveals a wide range of medical opinion. Generally, however, there is a (sort of) consensus that some memory loss in age, particularly short-term memory, is normal due to changes to neurotransmitters and chemicals in our brains.
The research involving memory tests of younger versus older people is mind-numbing. (If insomnia is a problem, I suggest you try reading these.) But I was impressed with some showing that elder brains have trouble ignoring extraneous information, resulting in overload. (That’s hardly the language medical researchers use, but it’s what they mean.)
“The [test] results showed that young adults had no problem ignoring irrelevant information. Some (but not all) of the older adults had a harder time overlooking unimportant information.
“Brain scans backed that up. The young adults' brain scans showed activity in a part of the brain that focused on the important images. The older adults' brain scans showed activity in the same area. But the seniors' scans also showed brain activity focusing on the irrelevant images.
"’These data suggest that older individuals are able to focus on pertinent information but are overwhelmed by interference from failure to ignore distracting information, resulting in memory impairment for the relevant information,’ write the researchers.”
- - WebMD, 12 September 2005
It is certainly true for me that I almost never concentrate on one thing at a time. As I have been writing this post, I took a break, when a stray idea entered my head, to add a thought to another post I’m working on.
While I was off on that page, it occurred to me to check on whether I have enough cash on hand to pay the person who cleans the halls of the condo. I returned to the desk to make a note to get some cash and figured that as long as I’ve interrupted writing, I should check email. I followed a couple of links, answered two emails and made a note for a possible future blog post. All before returning to write this paragraph.
No wonder I’ve forgotten what I intended to say next.
Short-term memory can also be adversely affected by some medications, untreated hypertension, lack of sleep, a variety of other conditions and, as is true for so many health problems, poor nutrition and sedentary living.
The one drug I take is not known to affect memory, I eat well, sleep almost okay, but I don’t exercise enough. (Reminder to self: get off your butt.)
The usefulness of memory games that have become popular in recent years has not been proven, but one thing that is known to help maintain cognitive function, of which memory is a part, is the adage, use it or lose it. Learning new things is especially productive as it creates new brain connections and keeps them active.
Not a problem. I learn how to do new things almost every day, but it hasn't helped. A couple of months ago, after leaving laundry in the dryer (which is in a back room) for three days too many times while wondering why I can’t find a certain sweater or shirt, I determined to set the kitchen timer to alert me when it is done. In the short walk from the laundry room to the kitchen, I have remembered exactly twice to set the timer.
It occurs to me, as I write this, to tape a reminder to set the timer on the door of the dryer. I wonder if I’ll remember to do that.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place, Mort Reichek recalls his childhood in The Bronx in The Games We Played.