By Kate McGahan LMSW
How often we are reminded that schools teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but not the lessons of the pure applications of life. They don’t teach us how to love, only that we love. They don’t teach us how to remember, just that we remember.
As we age, everything we have ever been creates an evolving identity of who we are, complete with our memories of the past, our place in the present and our hopes for the future. When we lose our connection to our past due to significant memory loss, we lose sight of everything we are. Our memory is essential to our growth as a person, as a family member and as a productive member of society.
“Uh oh,” we think “am I losing my mind? Is it Alzheimer’s?” when we forget a name or maybe a face. We prematurely experience what is called a “senior moment” or we become the butt of an old age joke. We remove the cold morning coffee from the microwave, forgotten in our mad rush to locate our keys. Where do we draw the line between mere forgetfulness and the problems that are the result of Alzheimer’s and other such disorders?
Every passing second of our lives we are receiving and transmitting information. The satisfied look of our golf partner, the disapproval of our boss, the ray of sunshine streaming through the window or a bird on the wing...the blare of the muffler that needs replacing, the roar of the alarm clock or the sweet sound of a symphony...the smell of your father’s aftershave or the feel of silk pajamas against your skin. Every sight, sound, smell, touch and taste is recorded in our phenomenal record-keeping center called the brain.
Every single experience has the potential of causing a physical neurological change in our brain. To this we owe the great success of music, art and aromatherapy to name a few. Every single message received by our senses goes through an intricate system of procedures. When we learn something or experience something, that “something” enters into a process that will file it according to what we will need it for. In other words, every experience will enter the brain, which will then decide if it should go to the short term memory, the long term memory, some storage area in between (a “recycle bin” of sorts, to be retrieved if necessary) or if it will be expelled as nonessential information.
It is our natural state to sort and file. A healthy brain does this flawlessly. Problems related to memory loss are not a natural state that comes with aging. It is said that we have 90 or so billion neurons and that with age they decrease in number. Neurons are naturally depleted with age by possibly a billion or so... hardly enough to affect our lifestyle.
What gets in the way? No matter what our age, we are affected by stress and anxiety, lack of sleep, malnutrition, overwork, hormonal changes and more. Exposure to influences such as drugs, alcohol, electromagnetic fields, medical illness and traumatic events can dramatically affect our memory storage and retrieval system.
Other than avoiding exposure to such things, what do we do to keep our memories on track?
1) The old standbys of eating right, getting enough sleep and exercise and trying to decrease stress is a good start.
2) Take some time to discover the growing industry of memory “wellness”. Hundreds of books, websites, school programs and courses are designed to help people to learn ways to adapt, compensate for and prevent forgetfulness. An array of alternative medicine remedies such as ginko biloba, vitamin E, lecithin and vitamin B12 are being professed as playing a part in winning the memory loss game.
3) Everything you experience, to a greater or lesser degree, creates a physical change in the brain. If you have had a negative experience in the past, don’t hang onto it -- because it will continue to affect you in negative ways.
4) Be sure you are doing the work you love and that you surround yourself with people who are supportive and nurturing rather than those who are critical or judgmental. You will absorb whatever others have to offer you – positive or negative.
5) Surround yourself with an aesthetically pleasing environment. Colors, sounds, textures, light can all have an impact on your sense of well being.
6) “Use it!” Don’t just play the memory games and take memory classes. It’s the things that you learn that you incorporate into your “being” that have the most profound affect on your memory. It’s looking at life in a whole new way, or looking at yourself with a new attitude. It’s having that internal light bulb go on that say’s ‘Wow, I never thought of it that way before.’ It’s the things that encourage you to take off the old shoe in exchange for new ways of doing and perceiving. It’s living in the moment. The positive experiences that stretch your creativity, your passions and your feelings will create an atmosphere in your brain conducive to optimal memory and cognitive health.
In a June 13, 2000 TIME magazine article, George Johnson writes in regard to memory loss: “(Research has shown that) canaries create a new batch of neurons every time they learn a song, then slough them off when it’s time to change tunes.” Don’t be afraid to change your tune once in awhile; it may be just what you need.
7) Don’t worry about your forgetfulness unless it begins to impact your patterns of routine, your behavior or your overall functioning. Not being able to find your keys is one thing. Not being able to find your car, well, that may not be quite so bad either. Not being able to find your way home is another story.
8) If you feel that memory loss is impacting your life or the life of someone you care about, don’t hesitate to seek medical advice. Many people procrastinate because they “don’t want to know” that they have a cognitive disorder. The fact is there are 100 or more reversible conditions that could cause memory loss. The sooner you find out, the sooner you can realistically get back on track.
In the meantime, you can join the rest of us who question ourselves from time to time. Just don’t let it prevent you from allowing your brain to grow from the experience of living life fully.
...And if you can say “Wow, I never knew that” somewhere during the course of this article, my goal today has been accomplished.