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My friend Patty dubs it a Swiss cheese moment, though mine lasted for a month. I couldn't find the shopping bag containing two pairs of pants I needed to return. I knew I'd set it aside somewhere but my repeated, frantic searches found nothing. Then, long after I'd given up hope of ever finding the darn thing, I reached into my raincoat pocket and found a receipt from the store -- I'd returned both pairs a few weeks earlier. But I had absolutely no recollection of doing it. That's when mild panic set in: Is something really serious going on?
"Misplace your keys when you're 30 and it's no big deal," says neuroscientist Susan De Santi, PhD, an expert in brain imaging and cognition. "But at 40? People start to get concerned."
They sure do. My mind went straight to early-onset Alzheimer's. Once I'd talked myself out of that diagnosis, I settled for garden-variety age-related memory loss. Which still panicked me -- if I was this bad now, what were my retirement years going to be like?
If you've had that same kind of experience, don't freak out, says Dr. De Santi. "Everybody has moments when they forget something for a host of reasons that has nothing to do with aging or Alzheimer's." Sure, aging is a factor in memory loss, the same way you may not run as fast in your 40s as you did in your 20s. And while you lose neurons as you age, your brain makes new ones. There's a big difference between normal slowing down and serious cognitive impairment, Dr. De Santi says.
Even if there is something going on with your memory, it's unlikely to be Alzheimer's. "Many psychological and physical disorders that have nothing to do with aging can weaken memory," says psychologist Mark A. McDaniel, PhD, coauthor of Memory Fitness: A Guide for Successful Aging. Common culprits include an over- or underactive thyroid, anxiety, low blood sugar, and medications such as antidepressants and antihistamines. If you're perimenopausal, fluctuating hormones can also play a role -- the same hormones that, years earlier, may have caused "pregnancy fog."
A visit to your doctor is a good idea if you're suddenly forgetful. But for most people memory glitches are nothing to worry about. "Such fogginess is most likely caused by treatable, reversible conditions," Dr. De Santi says.
Every piece of new information (such as, here I am at the store, returning the pants) triggers a complex series of chemical and cellular changes in your brain. To remember something new your brain must encode the information, store it, and later retrieve it. A breakdown in any one of those three steps leads to forgetting.
"Encoding involves all the senses -- vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch," says developmental molecular biologist John J. Medina, PhD, author of Brain Rules. How much you recall is influenced by what's happening around you at the time you're encoding as well as by your previous life experiences -- including genetics. Your brain takes in the new information and splits it into millions of pieces, sending them off to various parts of the brain: sounds in the area devoted to auditory processing, colors in the visual processing regions, and so on. Then it brings it all back together again (or not) when you try to recall something.
There are two main categories of memory: short-term and long-term. Short-term memory lasts only a few seconds -- you call 411 for the phone number of a new restaurant and unless you jot it down or repeat it several times you probably won't remember it after you make the reservation. Most people can hold only about seven bits of information (digits, letters, words) in their head at a time unless they do something to move that fleeting memory into long-term storage. There's a reason for that: If your brain held on to every piece of information it would be so cluttered you couldn't function. On the other hand, the smallest interruption deletes what you want to remember. That's why you may walk into a room to get a book, be distracted by someone asking when dinner will be ready, then stand there and wonder why you went into that room.
Long-term memory is a bit of a misnomer: It can mean something learned five minutes, or five years, ago. There are several types of long-term memory: Declarative memory is a memory for facts (such as "Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States"). Episodic memory is linked to a particular time and place (last summer's camping trip; where you went for your first anniversary). And motor memory governs everyday things like remembering how to brush your teeth.
Most of us experience forgetfulness because of memory-sapping behaviors and habits, not illnesses. Check out the top reasons for memory loss -- I'll bet they sound familiar.
Too Much Stress
Just the right amount of stress hormones -- cortisol and adrenaline -- keeps you sharp by heightening the senses and boosting energy and awareness. But too much can flood the system. "In almost every way that can be measured, chronic stress hurts our ability to think," says Dr. Medina. "Stressed people can't concentrate or problem solve well. They have trouble processing language and processing new information."
Even short bouts of anxiety -- worries about your 401(k), anger over an argument with a spouse -- can damage the brain's memory pathways. So you then forget to stop at the bank on the way home from the office or blank on the name of the woman you met at your son's soccer game last weekend.
Too Little Sleep
"Sleep loss cripples your ability to think logically, pay attention, and remember," Dr. Medina says. While you snooze your brain moves information it takes in during the day from short-term memory to long-term storage. Studies conducted by Mary A. Carskadon, PhD, a veteran sleep researcher at Brown University, revealed that losing just one hour of sleep per night on a regular basis can have a significant negative impact on health, alertness, and memory.
Returning a friend's e-mail while you're finishing a report at work and simultaneously fielding a call about your son's homework assignment may feel super-efficient. But research shows that, in fact, you're kidding yourself. Your ability to learn and remember is seriously compromised when you divide your focus.
"Think of a book," says Dr. Medina. "Though many words might exist on a single page, you can only read that page one word at a time. Similarly, the brain can only focus on one thing at a time unless the other skills are so familiar as to be automatic." That's why you can speed-walk with a friend and still carry on a conversation. But the details of your son's homework assignment? You weren't focusing, so your brain wasn't able to lay down the memory.
Working on Autopilot
Not paying attention to what you're doing when you're doing it could be the cause of absentmindedness, one of the most common memory glitches. When you can't find your eyeglasses and tear around the house looking for them until someone points out that they're on top of your head (where you pushed them when opening the mail) you're struggling with what Harvard University psychologist Daniel L. Schacter, PhD, calls "amnesia for the automatic." In other words, certain tasks are so routine that you don't even realize that your mind has started to wander until you try to remember where you put something or what you were doing at the time.
"There's no Viagra for memory," says Dr. McDaniel. But you can make simple lifestyle changes to sharpen your memory and boost overall brain health.
"Exercise is Miracle-Gro for the brain," says Dr. Medina. "Some studies suggest that you cut your lifetime risk for dementia in half if you engage in some form of regular aerobic activity." Aerobic exercise boosts the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, which helps you concentrate and screen out distractions. It also triggers the formation of new neurons and the release of brain chemicals that ramp up your ability to learn and remember. You don't have to train for a triathlon to get that benefit, either. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic training, such as walking, biking, or swimming, three times a week.
Just doing crossword puzzles won't cut it, Dr. Medina points out. "What you really need is cross-training for your brain by doing many different activities," he says. "Think of it this way: Using free weights to pump your biceps tones your arms, but it doesn't do a thing for your abs."
Some studies suggest you can preserve memory by doing intellectual activities that are not only demanding but meaningful to you. If you play piano, memorize a Bach concerto. Turn your girls' night out into a book club that inspires lively debate, plan a family sudoku tournament -- whatever makes you work hard and feel a connection.
What's good for the body is good for the brain, so aim for a balanced diet. Research shows a correlation between brain health and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon, halibut, soybeans, flaxseed), antioxidants (berries, spinach, broccoli) and adequate levels of folate (orange juice, green leafy vegetables).
Yoga, meditation, exercise, listening to music, daydreaming, spending time with friends and family: Whatever gives your brain a rest will also sharpen your memory. So will maintaining a positive attitude. "If you think, 'I'm getting older, my memory is going to deteriorate, so why should I bother doing anything differently?' memory loss can become a self-fulfilling prophesy," says Dr. McDaniel.
When to Call the Doctor
We all forget names or misplace wallets. But see your physician if?:
-You have trouble with daily functioning because your brain is foggy
- You start to struggle with simple familiar tasks (preparing meals; using a toothbrush or household appliance)
-You consistently forget common words
-You become disoriented or lost in your home or on your own street
- You experience erratic behavior, mood swings, or personality changes
Memory Glitch: You're introduced to someone at a party and five minutes later you can't remember her name.
Brain Booster: Pay attention when someone says her name and immediately repeat it silently to yourself three times. Then find a way to weave it into the conversation, as many times as possible.
Memory Glitch: You can't remember an address or even a short grocery list unless you write it down.
Brain Booster: You can probably reel off your Social Security number because it's arranged in groups of three, two, and four digits, right? "Chunking" -- breaking up a string of numbers into smaller groups -- works well for numbers as well as that grocery list. Or create an acronym: bread, eggs, apples, and tea becomes BEAT.
Memory Glitch: Your daughter calls at 4 p.m. to ask you to pick up milk on the way home from work. Two hours later you walk in the door -- without the milk.
Brain Booster: Next time take 30 seconds to imagine where you'll be when you need to remember the errand, then create a cue to prompt you: A Post-it note on the outside of your tote bag may remind you about the milk as you pack up and head for home.
Memory Glitch: You had your keys when you unlocked the front door but now you can't remember where you put them.
Brain Booster: You didn't exactly forget where you put your keys but you were probably preoccupied with other thoughts when you opened the door and didn't capture that specific memory. In the future, pay attention when you put something somewhere -- even say out loud, "I'm putting my keys on the kitchen table."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2010.