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Jewish Journal

Total Recall

A Writer's Quest to Improve Memory

by Nancy Sokoler Steiner

January 22, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Twice in the past couple of days, I've been in conversation and found myself grasping for a word. On both occasions, my 4-year-old supplied the word before I could come up with it. And, of course, there are the times that I walk into a room only to realize that I have no idea what I wanted to do once I got there. Are these natural lapses or early signs of something more sinister?

"We are all one day closer to Alzheimer's disease," Dr. Gary Small says forebodingly in his book "The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young" (Hyperion, 2003). "Alzheimer's and dementia begin forming in our brains much earlier than anyone previously imagined, even in our 20s."

Fortunately, we can thwart -- or at least postpone -- this progression.

"It is never too late or too early to protect our brain cells and delay memory decline," writes Small, who is the director of the UCLA Center on Aging. "By using games, puzzles and some new approaches to daily activities, we can improve our short- and long-term memory abilities and possibly prevent future memory loss and Alzheimer's disease."

The good news about Small's "anti-brain aging" program is that all of the recommendations are pretty basic. They do not require exotic terminology or elaborate equipment. The bad news is that change isn't instantaneous. Beyond the memory tricks and techniques, the plan calls for making fundamental changes to diet, amount of physical activity and stress levels -- easier said than done.

Launching into the book, I started with the memory self-assessment, which identified my degree of "memory challenge" as "moderate." (It took me four tries to correctly tally my score, so I guess my mathematical abilities would rate as "pathetic.") In another test, I was able to recall six out of 10 unrelated words 20 minutes after reviewing the list.

Small's principal memory technique is called Look-Snap-Connect. "Look" means to truly pay attention. For example, most of us are so busy thinking of other things when we're introduced to a new person, that we understandably can't recall their name just minutes later. This step involves actively focusing on what you want to remember, taking time to absorb details and meaning. "Snap" refers to creating a mental picture of the information, such as visualizing a frankfurter to remember the name Frank. "Connect" involves combining mental pictures in a meaningful way, creating a story of sorts that will help you retain and access what you want to remember.

Another strategy is called chunking -- dividing a large group of items into smaller groups or groupings with common characteristics. The "Roman Room" technique involves visualizing a familiar room and mentally placing items to be remembered -- for example items on a grocery list or the topics of a lecture -- in specific locations within the room. Small also presents the Peg Method as a way of "forever removing uncertainty about remembering numbers." I thought I'd try it to learn my husband's Social Security number, but the method requires creating and memorizing visual images for each of the 10 digits, then linking the images in a story. That seemed like much more effort than simply memorizing the number the old-fashioned way.

When it comes to brain power, Small believes in the "use it or lose it" philosophy. He recommends "a daily regimen of mental aerobics," which can involve such activities as crossword puzzles, brain teasers and other endeavors that keep us mentally stimulated. He cites research that found that the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease was three times lower in people who had been intellectually active during their 40s and 50s compared to those who hadn't.

Beyond the techniques and the brain teasers, Small's recommendations are the same ones we've all heard repeatedly for maintaining wellness and staving off disease: following a low-fat diet, reducing stress, staying physically active, getting sufficient sleep, balancing work and leisure, avoiding tobacco and other drugs, and engaging in meaningful activities and relationships. He does offer some specific dietary recommendations, including taking 400-800 units of vitamin E and 500-1,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily, as well as eating foods -- such as avocado, salmon and walnuts -- that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids.

Will it make a difference? I tried to memorize another list of 10 words -- and, this time, I could remember nine of them. But having just finished the book, it's too early for me to tell how much of a change it will make in the long run. And much of that depends on how thoroughly I follow through on the book's recommendations. So I made a list of the steps I plan to take as part of my new memory regimen. But just in case the list gets lost, I'm also telling my 4-year-old.

The UCLA Center on Aging holds classes in improving memory. For more information, call 310 794-0676.

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