OPINION: You’re not losing your memory, just forgetting how to remember

Christine says many of us forget things, but simple measures such as writing things down or using so

Christine says many of us forget things, but simple measures such as writing things down or using songs or rhymes to remember things can help - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Christine Webber says you can remember things if you think about how you’re going to do it

Do you ever catch yourself saying: ‘My memory’s not what it was.’? Or: ‘Oh-oh, senior moment!’?

Well, my advice is to stop it!

In a column last year, I suggested that we should all learn to avoid making a groaning sound as we bent or sat down.

A lot of you took that on board. I know that, because countless readers have come up to me since and told me that they’ve worked hard at keeping silent as they reach for something on the floor or sink into their favourite armchair.


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The reason for giving that advice was to remind us all that when we seem negative about our age, or we act as if we’re in our dotage, we signal to other people that we’re knocking on a bit. Worse than that, we’re signalling the same message to our own brains.

I don’t think that’s a good idea.

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Neither do I think it’s helpful if we associate forgetfulness too closely with ageing. It encourages us to believe that decline is serious and inevitable. In fact, there’s a lot we can do to preserve memory.

In his fascinating book, The Changing Mind, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin makes the point that we’re forgetful throughout our lives. But he says that when we’re young it doesn’t trouble us, whereas when we’re older we worry we’re getting dementia. He describes how young students turn up late for lectures, go to the wrong room or forget to attend altogether, but that they shrug off the mistake and find some plausible explanation, such as they have lots on their mind. They definitely don’t beat themselves up over it.

Younger children are even worse. They forget they haven’t given you their PE kit to wash till they need it next time. They forget to do their homework. Or forget where they put it once they have.

Of course, we all slow down to some extent as we age, but it’s not all gloom and doom. If you want an optimistic and scientific view of the ageing brain and its capabilities, do read Professor Levitin’s book

What else can we do?

On a practical level, we can sort niggling memory lapses by establishing a routine. For example, do you lose your keys, or your reading spectacles several times a day?

You can stop this happening. Have a drawer or a hook or a little basket just inside the front door and routinely place your house keys in it. As you do so, say outloud: ‘I’m leaving my keys here. This is their place.’ If you turn this into a habit it will save stress and time.

Likewise, if you need spectacles in order to read, designate an area in every room where you use your specs – for example, the bedroom, kitchen, sitting room – and only ever leave your glasses there.

Another difficulty we associate with age is learning something new – for example remembering someone’s name when we meet for the first time. Edgar Allan Poe once said: ‘To observe attentively is to remember distinctly.’ How true that is.

Frequently, it’s not so much that people forget information, it’s more that they never really heard or noticed it when it was given. So, get into the routine of repeating someone’s name when you’re introduced. And try to link a visual clue to that person as well. Perhaps she has red shoes. File her away in your memory bank as ‘Jo with the red high heels’.

By making this extra effort, you’ll have more chance of calling her by the right name next time you meet.

All experts on memory agree that if you don’t use it, you lose it. So, if you’re worried that your powers of recall are not what they were, try a little brain training.

When someone gives you their phone number, don’t just punch it into your mobile contacts list, or write it down in your address book. Instead, learn it.

Break it up into groups of two figures or three. Suppose the number after the area code is 978357. Try saying it as 97 83 57. Then try it as 978 357. One of these groupings will feel more natural to you. Repeat it to yourself at odd times for the rest of the day. This will not only help you to memorise it, but you’ll be giving your brain a workout too.

If you need to master something longer – maybe you have to make a speech at your daughter’s wedding or give a presentation at work – try singing it. I know that sounds odd, but words and melody together are more memorable than words on their own.

About 58 years ago, a very good maths teacher at my school recommended we learn to sing the Quadratic Formula to the tune of Sing a Song of Sixpence. I had a go at recalling it yesterday.

Amazingly, I could still remember most of it. I didn’t understand it though.

But that’s a different problem entirely.

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