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Tips to enhance thinking and deal with memory loss

Dear Doc Column

Feisty old lady, "ideas for dealing with dang memory loss"1-27-18  Dear Doc, I’ve just turned 75 and the old brain isn’t like it used to be.  I keep forgetting where I’ve parked.  I forget names, lose things, forget to take my pills, and have been re-watching movies, forgetting I’ve already seen them.  Any recommendations to keep me going?

Hello, and thanks for writing!  Complaints about memory tend to crop up as we age.  My first recommendation is to see your family physician!  It’s important to tell the difference between benign, temporary causes of memory deficits and actual dementia, and only your doctor can determine that.  Many memory problems are reversible if caught on time, like depression, vitamin deficiencies, normal pressure hydrocephalus, and medication side effect, so it’s worth making that appointment.

Apart from visiting your doctor, here are some tips to help enhance memory and deal with cognitive deficits.

Keep your brain active:

Take on challenges that make you think.  Do crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and logic puzzles.  Play Scrabble.  If you’re up to it, study languages or do calculus!

Use association to memorize things.  When you receive new information you want to remember, make it a point to connect that data to something you already know.  Use a play on words, bind it to an old memory, or make up a story about it.  For example, if your new secretary has the same name as your high school sweetheart, consciously making that connection can help you remember the secretary’s name right away.

Practice something you want to remember.  In medical school, the trick to learning everything that needed to be learned was to study it over and over and over again.  This applies to all ages.  For example, if you want to remember the words to a new song your choir is singing, take the lyrics home and write them out a dozen times.  Each time you write them out, try to do so without looking at the original until absolutely necessary.  You’ll be surprised how quickly you learn.

Stay interested in life.  Watch documentaries, talk to new and interesting people, and search the internet with passion.  Maintaining your imagination, holding onto that drive to be alive, can combat memory problems and keeps your mind active.  Clinically, people’s memory and orientation tend to falter the moment they stop engaging in the outside world.

Find ways to remember:

Keep a diary.  If you’re up to it, keep a notebook and take down notes of everything.  A diary is like a peripheral brain or storage unit.  It holds everything you can’t.  Just reread the diary to find out exactly what you did last week.  Make sure to write regularly.

Hang a large calendar on the wall.  Use the calendar to help remind you of appointments and events.

Use post-it notes.  Post-it notes, also called sticky notes, are tiny 3 by 3 sheets with a light adhesive on the back; they stick to a variety of surfaces and can easily be removed and reused.  Stick post-it notes at visible places to remind you of things you don’t want to forget.  For example, post a sticky note with a message on the fridge or bathroom mirror at night if you need to remember something the next morning.  This can range from a shopping list to a reminder that your cat has a vet’s appointment at 10AM.

Keep a to-do list.  Make a list of important daily activities (plus extra tasks) to check off as you do them.  Consider keeping this outline on your wall calendar or in a sticky note.  Some people keep a list of things they need to have with them when they leave the house.

Hang a clock in every room.  At a minimum, keep that calendar and clock by the bedside so you see it first thing in the morning.

Fill that pill caddy.  If you’re having problems remembering to take your meds, keep them in a mediset or pill caddy.  Put the mediset in a visible spot.  Some medisets come with alarms to remind you to take your medications.  Whether you have an alarm or not, the nice thing about organizing your pills this way is you can tell if you’ve already them for the day.

Store stuff in the same place every day.  To avoid losing things, organize your belongings so that they’re always in the same spot, especially your keys and wallet.  Place a table near the entrance to your house and apartment, and keep everything important on that table.  Consider getting an alarm GPS locator keychain for your keys if you keep losing them.

Care for your body

Get physical.  No doubt about it: exercise is the best defense against dementia.  Let me say that again: exercise is the best defense against dementia!  Believe it or not, according to recent studies, just 1 hour of vigorous exercise/week halved the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.  Exercise also seems to slow down the progression of the disease.

Quit smoking, watch that weight, and control blood pressure.   Taking on these three risk factors decreases the risk of developing dementia.  No need to say more!

Avoid drugs and alcohol.  Illicit substances and alcohol tax the brain, especially when taken in abundance, and can cause a range of problems, from permanent mental fogging and personality changes to frank dementia.

Consider pills and treatment

Try a cognitive enhancer.  If you’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia, talk to your doctor about anti-dementia medications, like Aricept (Donepezil) or Namenda (Memantine).

Think about non-prescription remedies.  Consider taking anti-oxidants, Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, and Vitamin B Complex.  Study results have been mixed (some show benefit, others don’t), but all four have been associated with improved physical health.

Get mood under control.  Depression and anxiety are enormous false masqueraders of dementia.  If you’ve been feeling down or overwhelmed with worry, talk to your primary care doctor about getting those symptoms under control.  They might prescribe medication or refer you to a therapist, depending on your preference.  You’ll probably find your thinking clears considerably.

Self-care is the way to go

Keep a daily routine.  Having a predictable schedule helps you keep track of what you hope to complete everyday and allows you to spend less time trying to figure out what needs to be done.  In people with memory problems, changing routine or environment has a tendency to destabilize thinking and stability.

Focus on what you can do.  Dealing with memory deficits can leave you immersed in loss.  You’re grieving the changes in your life.  But, instead of honing in on what you can’t do, it’s important to focus on your abilities and strengths and use those to your advantage.

Don’t mind your errors.  You’ll make mistakes.  That’s okay.  Most of the time you don’t have to get it right the first time around; you have more than one chance to solve your problems.  Try different strategies.  If a task is overwhelming, break it down into smaller steps and do one step at a time.  It’s okay to ask for help.


Hope that helps.  For more information about cognitive deficits, consider My aunt has dementia or Am I getting Alzheimer’s? 

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