Memory Enhancement

by Joanne K. Singleton, PhD, RN, CS, FNP
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Throughout life there are occasions when memory fails us, but undaunted we continue on. Anyone for example who has, or knows children is well aware that they forget things on a regular basis. Parents often ask, "Where did you leave your mittens?" "Why didn't you bring home the books you need to do your homework?" "When were you told to be home?" The universal reply from children, punctuated in their unique ways is, "I forgot."

Forgetting doesn't seem to phase children, adolescents or young adults in the least. The same is true for adults until some point in time when they cannot recall on demand the name of someone, some place, or something so familiar to them that they begin to worry about the state of their memory. "Senior-moment" is a popular socially acceptable phrase, used particularly among aging baby boomers, when one experiences public memory failure. While some make the appearance of taking memory failure lightly, covering it up with this catchy phrase, others publicly show their frustrations and concerns. Regardless of how one responds in public there is a great deal of anxiety about forgetfullness. With forgetfullness is the fear that it is an early sign of Alzheimer's Disease or another form of dementia. This anxiety and fear may be particularly acute for caregivers whose parent or parents have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.

Alzheimer's Disease is not a condition of normal aging, in fact the risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease decreases after the age of 90. Four million Americans are currently affected by Alzheimer's Disease. Risk factors include: age; genes/heredity; gender; ethnicity; and low intellectual ability in complex thinking and expression. Women in general are at greater risk than men of developing Alzheimer's Disease. The risk for African Americans is four times higher, and for Latino's it is twice as high as that of Caucasians. There is a 1.5 times greater risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease when one parent has the disease, but when two parents have the disease that risk increases to 5 times the average risk. When it comes to memory problems, a cardinal rule is: If you are concerned about memory problems you should be evaluated by their health care provider.

What is Memory?

Memory is a process of retaining, storing and recalling experiences, and it is closely associated with learning. Thought learning, knowledge is acquired, and through memory this knowledge is made available. There are different types of memory, temporary or short term, which is stored for a very short period of time in the brain- a millisecond to a few minutes, and permanent or long term, which is more lasting. Short term memory can become long term through focused attention, associated ideas, and repetition. There are also two categories of memory. Declarative memory is what we use to remember facts and events, such as your phone number, or anniversary. Procedural memory is what comes into play for procedures and abilities, such as riding a bicycle, driving a car, or tying your shoes.

Is forgetfullness or memory failure a normal part of aging?

There are only a few cognitive changes that accompany aging. With aging the speed with which auditory, visual, and sensory information is processed decreases. Over time there is also a reduction in the intention to remember and recall on demand well known names, numbers or places. When no major diseases are present, memory and cognitive function can actually be improved in old age.

How can memory be enhanced with aging?

Memory enhancement is comprised of many things and must be personalized. It requires keeping the mind active and providing the brain and the body with the exercise and supports needed for optimal functioning. It must being with acknowledging to yourself why you want to enhance your memory. To being any activities to promote healthy aging you need to be sufficiently motivated to be able to begin and sustain the changes you are making. No matter how simple the activities may seem, change does not occur without conscious intent. Conscious intent requires continuous reinforcement, as it takes at least three weeks to change or add a new behavior.

It is generally better to focus on one change at a time. Not only does this allow you to incorporate it into your activity pattern, it also allows you to see how you are responding to it. Trying to implement too many changes at the same time is not realistic and most often is doomed for failure. When we are not successful with implementing a change it can impact how we feel about our selves. When embarking on behavioral changes it’s important to remember to be realistic and to be kind to yourself. Think about which one of the several changes you would like to make will have the greatest positive impact for you. Start there and work toward your goal of changing or adding the new behavior. Success breeds success.

Supporting factors to promote mental function and enhance memory

In order to enhance memory, optimum mental functioning must be promoted. Optimum mental functioning requires mental stimulation, proper nutrition, social interaction and support, breathing and relaxation, water intake, physical exercise, rest and sleep. Some medications can cause memory problems, so special care should be taken to identify if this is a side effect of any of your medications, and if so to discuss this with your health care provider should memory problems develop. The following provides more information on specific areas to address for promoting mental function and enhancing memory.

- Learn/Do Something New

The brain can absorb new data, make new connections, and acquire new skills, which helps to enhance memory. To take on new things you need to believe that you can deal with the specific activity or problem and that you will have reasonable success. You can improve cognitive functioning with training that focuses on learning how to draw conclusions from a set of facts, or identifying relationships between different shapes.

Try activities that that are new for you and require you to think and do things that are unfamiliar to you. Consider learning to play a musical instrument, studying a foreign language, practicing yoga or other body work activities, take up cooking. Challenge yourself to stimulate the growth of new brain cells.

Guided imagery can also help to stimulate the braing. In guided imagery one must be mindful of their breathing, using their breath to help them relax into this practice. Through guided imagery a pleasant experience is brought into the mind's eye. Through the senses all the dimensions of the experience are recalled into our memory. Visualizing all the dimensions of the experience, the sight, smell, sounds, and feelings, not only helps to produce a feeling of well being, it sharpens the memory by recalling an experience and revisiting its sensory details.

- Social Interaction and Support

Humans require positive meaningful interactions with other humans. Lack of stimulation from these types of interactions can lead to depression and cause memory problems. Unfortunately not all human interactions are of this nature. In addition to your routine interactions seek out those with whom you can have positive and meaningful interactions.

- Nutrition

Eating a well balanced diet is essential for healthy aging. Within a well balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables, bread and cereal, the vitamins that support our memory (folic acid, B12, and thiamin) will be available.

Ginkgo biloba is a botanical product that comes from the Ginkgo tree. Ginkgo increases the flow of blood to the brain. It is sold as a dietary supplement, does not require a prescription, and is readily available at health food stores and over the counter in many pharmacies. Individuals currently use Ginkgo to improve their memory and/or cognitive function, and also to treat Alzheimer's Disease. In Germany its use has been approved for many forms of dementia including, Alzheimer's Disease. There is some evidence to suggest that Ginkgo can prevent dementia or delay its progression. Currently Gingko is being evaluated through the National Institutes for Health, to determine if it prevents cognitive decline in older adults, and/or prevents Alzheimer's Disease.

- Breathing & Relaxation

Breathing is good, it is essential to life. We can use breathing to calm ourselves. Focusing on your breathing can help to reduce tension and nervousness, which can inhibit our ability to pay attention and can interfere with memory.

- Water

Water is an essential element for humans to exist, it also helps to promote memory. Not enough water can lead to dehydration, which can cause confusion and problems with memory.

- Physical Exercise

The mind-body connection is real. Physical exercise can promote mental alertness and healthy aging. Exercise comes in many different forms. Finding what is best for you and fits with your lifestyle is critical to making it part of routine activities. The keys to physical exercise is that it must be safe for you, be something that you enjoy doing, and you must do it regularly several times a week. Before beginning any exercise program you should consult your health care provider.

- Rest /Sleep

Both rest and sleep are very important for the body as well as the brain. During sleep the brain has a decrease in sensory input which the brain to sort though experiences and activities and store memory.

Tips for Enhancing Your Memory

  • Take a look at you habits, see if there are any that do not enhance your memory. If there are, make a plan to change them. Consider developing new habits that can support your memory, such as paying attention, making lists, taking notes, organizing your environment, and/or associating facts to images.
  • Identify and acknowledge for yourself why you want to enhance your memory
  • Know what it is that is motivating you to do this, and how this will sustain your motivation
  • Consider the circumstances around attempting any new activity or behavior change, are the circumstances conducive to success?
  • Be patient with yourself
  • Be diligent
  • Find things that excite you
  • Don't give up
  • Congratulate yourself along the way

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