We’re all getting older and worrying about loss of memory comes with age. But what if you’re experiencing memory loss even when you’re young?
Elizabeth Bernstein, writing in The Wall Street Journal, says we all may be having difficulty with our memories regardless of age. For example, Grant Shields was teaching a college seminar to 24 students last week when his mind went blank. He’d forgotten the name of his teaching assistant. “I was embarrassed,” says Dr. Shields, who though he heard students laugh when he said the wrong name, then struggled to recover. “I wish my memory was as good as it used to be.”
You might think Dr. Shields is getting up in years – but he’s just 32 years old. He’s actually a memory researcher, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of Arkansas. What’s more, he was teaching a class on how stress affects cognition.
Short, temporary instances of forgetfulness are happening to more of us more often these days, memory experts say. We’re finding it difficult to recall simple things: names of friends and co-workers we haven’t seen in a while, words that should come easily, even how to perform routine acts that once seemed like second nature. Apparently, we can blame even some of our memory loss on the pandemic.
Bernstein says we’re living in yet another moment of big change as we return to something approaching normalcy after two years of the pandemic. Add to that the stress of inflation and a war in Europe that could have world-wide consequences and you have plenty of reasons for being distracted and forgetting things. All this change consumes cognitive energy, often much more than we think, neuroscientists say. It’s no wonder we can’t remember what we had for breakfast.
“Our brains are like computers with so many tabs open right now,” says Sara C. Mednick, a neuroscientist and professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. “This slows down our processing power, and memory is one of the areas that falters.”
The chronic and cumulative stress of the past two years has taken its toll, too. Research led by Dr. Shields shows that people who have experienced recent life stressors have impaired memory. Stress negatively affects our attention span and sleep, which also impact memory. And chronic stress can damage the brain, causing further memory problems, says Dr. Shields.
Another factor may be the deluge of information coming at us on a daily basis, cluttering our brains. We’re terrible at paying attention, constantly distracted by scrolling our phones and trying to multi-task. This makes it hard to encode memories in the first place. Then there’s the sameness of our lives, especially during the pandemic. When each day seems just like the next, it’s hard for the brain to recall what just happened. “Memory benefits from novelty,” says Zachariah Reagh, a cognitive neuroscientist and assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “When all of our experiences blend together, it’s hard to remember any of them as distinct.”
Memory does decline with age, but medical science isn’t clear exactly when. People age cognitively at different rates. Some studies show that memory ability peaks in people’s 20s and gradually declines from there; others suggest the sharpest decline starts around age 60, Dr. Reagh says. If you think your memory is declining faster than most, you should see your doctor.
What can we do to improve our memories?
Here are some suggestions for boosting your memory:
- Don’t force it – Forcing yourself to try to remember something is counterproductive – and frustrating. That frustration will only make matters worse. Take some deep breaths to calm your brain and try again later.
- Stop multitasking – If you’re trying to do two things at once, your brain will have a harder time remembering what you’ve done. Pay attention to small tasks you typically do on autopilot, such as brushing your teeth. “When you practice paying attention in those moments when it doesn’t matter, it will become easier in those moments when it does,” says Dr. Jennifer Kilkus of Yale School of Medicine.
- Help your brain calm – To strengthen your frontal lobe, which is involved in both memory encoding and retrieval, says Dr. Mednick, author of the coming book, The Power of the Downstate. Mednick recommends daily meditation, yoga, or simply slow deep breathing for at least 10 minutes a day. Take a walk, connect with a loved one, have a long chat, give a hug, have sex. Intimacy reduces stress by making you feel safe and cared for. And get some sleep! This clears out toxins in your brain that can clog your memory processing, she says.
- Be socially present – Give your full attention to people when you talk to them. Doing so will help you better recall what you want to say in the conversation and remember what was said. We need to approach each conversation intentionally, says Dr. Jeanine Turner, professor of communication at Georgetown University.
Sounds like good advice – and not one mention of taking Prevagen! Let’s summarize: Relax, take things one at a time, take a walk, sleep more, have more intimacy, and pay attention to people you’re talking to. Sounds like a plan!