Controlling Memory Loss

My family has a history of Alzheimer disease.  Both my grandmother and my mother lived with it, so I am particularly jittery when I draw a blank on a name or miss a word.  Jokingly, a friend once said, “If you can spell the word Alzheimer, you don’t have it.”  I hope that’s the case as I spend a lot of time reminding myself how to spell the Big “A” word.

Synchronize your brain

The other day the New York Times ran an article on a new non-invasive therapy for memory deficits and decline.  It stated that memory loss starts to decline in one’s 20s and doesn’t stop. The article quoted neuroscientists who discovered that “brief sessions of specialized brain stimulation could reverse this steady decline in working memory, at least temporarily.” It went on to explain a process called “transcranial alternating current stimulation” which works much in the same way as “an orchestra conductor might tune the wind section to the strings” by synchronizing various parts of the brain.  (Here is the whole article:

Ways to keep your memory sharp

This article unleashed my curiosity and I began to informally survey my friends, young and old, to learn how they tackled keeping their minds alert. Besides the predictable tricks of putting together complicated puzzles, playing bridge, or doing the cross-word puzzles in ink, I discovered a whole range of techniques.  Allow me to start with what I do.  For the last fifteen years, I’ve studied Italian as this is a fun and productive way to exercise the brain. 

At a dinner our last week, I quired the other guests to see what they did to keep their minds in shape. Katy Hanenberg, an architect and Baby Boomer, announced the following: “Oh, I have a good mind!  When I was younger, I was an actor and loved memorizing my lines.  To this day, my head is also filled with long passages of poetry which I recite frequently which gives my mind a good workout.” 

The power of the piano

Candace Jones, a long-time friend who recently dragged me to a George Crumb concert at Avery Fisher Hall, gave me her trick. “I pick difficult compositions to learn to play on the piano.  Currently, I am playing a piece by Amy Beach.  It has several passages with complex rhythmic patterns which, for an amateur, is like solving a math problem while trying to strike all the right keys and sound artful all at the same time.   Then, when I play with my trio (piano, cello and flute), I must do all the above while listening to each of them at the same time.   After a rehearsal, my brain hurts. I sure hope something good is happening in there,” she said pointing her finger to her stylishly coiffed, blond head.

A semi-retired lawyer, Vincent Sharkey, told me he likes to spell words backwards. To prove his point, he rattled off Mississippi starting with the “i” without a moment’s hesitation while looking quite pleased with himself.   If you think this is easy, try spelling "world" backwards. It's a real brain-twister.

Vincent’s wife Joyce’s trick is to continue working.  “I have sufficient stimulation in the office that I don’t need any special techniques to keep my brain in tip top shape. “  

Read, read, read!

More than four people mentioned they voraciously read books to exercise their minds.  Former communications executive, Joan Brower, volunteered, “Now retired, I find that not since college and grad school have I felt so educated, having the luxury of time to read and absorb copious amounts of information daily. It also keeps the mind young and nimble! “

My mentor, Mary Lyons—also an avid reader—taught me her signature memory trick years ago.  She used to wear a gold pinky ring with a diamond in the center. Every time she wanted to remind herself of something, she would move the ring from her right hand to her left.  When she got home and realized the ring had been switched, she turned on her memory machine to recall what it was.

Taking a count of what you need for the day

Early on in my informal research, one male friend told me that every morning he assesses the number of items he needs for the day. Then, he puts to memory what those items are.  As they change from day to day, he always starts with the specific number.  “I need to remember four things today, …..” and then plugs them in. I thought this might be very helpful so I tried it out first thing the next  morning.  “Today I need to remember four things to take with me to the gym: my keys, iPhone (which has my gym ID), water bottle and money for my après-exercise cappuccino at Éclair, my neighborhood French pastry shop.” It worked like a charm.

George, another pal, said he always remembers to put the things he needs to start the morning in a specific place the night before.  His wallet, comb, handkerchief and keys are all lined up perfectly on top of his dresser by 10:00 PM.  “If something is moved by my wife or grandchildren, I am lost the whole next day.”  George went on to explain this was the same theory behind why the ancient Romans always set up their military camps in the same manner no matter which country they were invading. So, for George remembering to keep things in their rightful place starts the day with a clear focus. 

Forgetting what I wanted to remember

Then, last Saturday before heading to my Equinox spin class, I remember to try the “How many things do you need with you this morning” plus the “Keep things in their right place” techniques.  Alas, I was distracted by first doing the laundry. 

To access our building’s basement laundry room, a special elevator key is required. This key, along with an extra apartment key, is attached on a ring with a cheerful orange, plastic pig. Our family keeps this along with our laundry card in a small wicker basket on top of my husband’s dresser.  So, in preparation of doing the laundry, I picked up the “pig” key chain and the card, threw them on top of the newspapers—only temporarily, of course—and made myself some fresh coffee to take downstairs.  Then, I gathered up the detergent and cart filled with dirty clothes and headed downstairs gingerly balancing my cup of coffee. 

When I went to use the laundry card, I realized I had left it upstairs along with the other keys, because they were not in their normal place, but rather on top of the newspapers.  Luckily, our doorman keeps an extra set of keys which allowed me back into the apartment to retrieve what I had forgotten.   

Laundry done, I headed to the gym.  After an hour of exercise, I sauntered back home but suddenly realized I had left my normal apartment keys at home. Thinking to myself, “Well, Marsha, this is a double-header with forgetting things today, “ I further chastised myself for not counting what I needed to start the day. To make matters worse, I had inadvertently also forgotten to return the reserve set of keys to the doorman!

With no other alternative, I begrudgingly turned around and walked to the local locksmith luckily only two blocks away.  Within three minutes the locksmith managed to jimmy open the front door by running a thin metal strip up and down the door frame while giving the metal door a series of strong kicks. Two hundred dollars later, I was back inside. Clearly, I need to pay more attention to those two memory tricks.

Write it down!

My esthetician, Corrina, loves to travel. When I asked what her favorite memory tactic was, she replied writing a diary during her trips.  Then, she acknowledged, “I know it’s a great way to remember what I’ve seen, otherwise all the days and sites get jumbled.  Some day I have to try it.”  In fact, the few times I’ve kept a journal while away, it enhanced my experience.  It also came in handy when later I wanted to recommend to a friend a restaurant or museum exhibit I had enjoyed on my trip.

The embarrassment of forgetting someone’s name

Many people have problems remembering names.  I know the word association game is supposed to help.  However, my issue is often I only remember the word reference, not the name! A friend reminded me how awkward it is when you can’t recall the name of someone you’ve met before. She suggested reminding people in this post that they should observe proper memory loss etiquette.  When you extend your hand and offer your name, the other person should do the same, not just say, “Hello, it’s great to see you again.”

Whenever my late husband, Ed, couldn’t recall the name of a person, he would start at the beginning of the alphabet and go through the entire thing until he happened upon the first letter of the person’s name.  Ed would triumphantly call out, “Yes, it’s Z for Zelma!”

The young use mind games too!

 Remember, you don’t have to be of “a certain age” to recognize the importance of exercising your brain.  Carrie, a 33-year-old doctor’s office receptionist, said she uses the Lumosity app on her cell phone to stimulate her brain.  She explained that she had recently gone back to school and playing the brain games on the subway commuting to and from her college helped to keep her mind sharp. “Lumosity is all about brain training with a series of games created by scientists and game designers. What I like best about this app is that it tracks my progress plus when I master one application it helps me do better with the app’s other cognitive games.” 

Three things to remember for a healthy brain 

Susan Sokol Blosser, one of Oregon wine industry pioneers, recently told me that “All the advice I’ve seen points to three things: healthy diet, regular exercise, and continued learning. I think of the last as like strength training. You need to exercise your brain like you would your muscles—pushing it regularly into the unknown. This could be lifting weights for your skeletal muscles and learning a new piece on the piano for your brain muscle.” Like Candace, Susan used the analogy of studying music to fine tune her mind.  “I started taking piano lessons recently, am loving it, and can almost feel the little gray cells multiplying as I struggle to get the right notes, on the right beat, and coordinate left and right hands.”

A healthy diet leads to a heathy mind

As Susan pointed out, eating a healthy diet is critical to aiding our cognitive ability. Most people know that there are certain foods rich in antioxidants, good fats, vitamins and minerals, which both proivde energy  and aid in protecting against brain diseases.  Let’s all commit this list of brain foods to memory:  Avocado, celery, coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, egg yolks, leafy green vegetables, broccoli, blue berries, beets, bone broth, rosemary, salmon, turmeric, walnuts and dark chocolate.

With Susan’s trilogy of three things to do to increase your mind power echoing in my brain, I quickly checked off the boxes for: healthy eating (I’m mad for vegetable and practically drink EVOO); regular exercise (Thanks, Jenn, my princess of pain trainer); and finally, continued learning (Italian lessons and, of course, my writing this TarteTatinTale blog.  Now let’s see if I can spell Alzheimer backwards. Why don’t you try it as well?