Vladimir Nabokov gave us this haunting title of his autobiographical memoir. Far removed from literary classics, many Americans today appear to be fearful of losing their memory. A 2010 survey by the MetLife Foundation reported that people over 55 dread getting Alzheimer’s more than any other disease. The fact that only one in eight Americans older than 65 has Alzheimer’s does not dispel this widespread fear.
Memory lapses can occur at any age, but we tend to become more anxious when they happen as we become older. Mislaying car keys used to be chalked up to absent-mindedness. Now, forgetting a familiar name or walking into another room and not remembering the purpose are called “senior moments”. This is often acknowledged with an undercurrent of concern. Greater awareness of Alzheimer’s through movies, television programs and books has raised the level of apprehension among older Americans. Watching a drama of a woman or man deteriorating with the disease can have a powerful effect on viewers. The images linger.
Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a scholar at Brandeis University, is the author of “Agewise: Fighting the New Ageism in America”. She has written, “Many older people lose the ability to remember proper nouns but then never progress to losing any other part of speech. Most forgetfulness is not Alzheimer’s or dementia, or even necessarily a sign of cognitive impairment.” She stresses, “The mind is capacious. Much mental and emotional ability can survive mere memory loss, as do other qualities that make us human.” Research in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch reports, “When significant memory loss occurs among older people, it is not due to aging, but to organic disorders, brain injury, or neurological illness.”
Another way to view aging in what Gullette terms our “hypercognitive society” is to think of the enormous emphasis on the latest advances in technology, communication and cyberspace. If one is reluctant to leap at learning the intricacies of the computer or the newest Ipad— is that a sign of a loss of intellectual function? Or can it be that many women and men prefer reading books the time-honored way rather than changing to Kindle or Nook? They enjoy the kinesthetic pleasure of turning the pages that has been a sensory part of reading since they were children. We live in an age of fast forward to the latest hand held device with multiple applications. If older people choose to avoid the frenzy, that does not mean they lack the mental capacity to do so.
The Harvard Women’s Health Watch headlined a valuable article, “Preserving and improving memory as we age.” (February 2010) The article began with the basics, “Studies have shown that you can help prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia by maintaining good general health habits, staying physically active, getting enough sleep, not smoking, having good social connections, limiting alcohol to one drink a day, and eating a balanced diet low in saturated and trans fats.” Beyond the basics, they recommend:
* Keep learning. “Challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells, and stimulate communication among them.” Mental exercises include: playing chess or bridge, solving crossword or jigsaw puzzles, joining a book club, taking a class or course, pursuing music or art, writing a memoir of life episodes.
*Economize your brain use. “Take advantage of calendars, maps, shopping lists, file folders and address books to keep routine information accessible.” Have a place for your glasses, keys and other items you use frequently. This frees your mind to concentrate on learning and remembering new and important things in your life. Einstein is often cited as saying, “I don’t have all the mathematical formulae in my head. I need my mind to think.” That may be apocryphal, but it makes good sense.
*Repeat what you want to hold on to. When you’ve just heard, read or thought about something you want to remember, repeat it out loud or write it down. With a name you’ve just been told, use it when you speak to him or her. If you wake during the night and want to do something in the morning, have a pad and pen on the night table to note it.
*Combat absent-mindedness by planning. If you take certain medications at breakfast, put the bottles out the night before with your coffee maker. Check to see if your wallet with cash or credit cards and keys are in your handbag before you go out to shop.
*Create a mnemonic. These devices can be acronyms, like RICE to remember first-aid advice for injured limbs: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.
*Believe in yourself. “Myths about aging can contribute to a failing memory. If you believe you can improve and you translate that belief into practice, you have a better chance of keeping your mind sharp.”
Final note on memory and mental acuity: I knew a woman of 94 years who played Scrabble on her computer with college professors all over the country. She beat them on a regular basis.