I sometimes play a little game when my mind is unoccuppied with weighty matters. I try to trace back my first memory as a child. When did I become capable of remembering my life.
You really have to be an investigator to attempt this game because the further you go back in time, the more mushy your memory becomes. I've found that visual cues that mark a time period are helpful, specifically the crib because it defines a specific age. My first memory (for now) is being put into my crib without my peach cobbler desert because I'd misbehaved. I must have been about two, I would think.
I had my most bizarre experience with memory only a year ago. When I was four years old, I drowned. My dad discovered me at the bottom of the pool, threw me onto the deck, and I shortly gushed water out of my lungs, coughing and sputtering. I have absolutely no recollection of this event, and only learned about it by chance chatting with my father.
How could I forget such a traumatic event and remember a much earlier trivial event? The mind and memory are strange in the way they work, and we will never fully understand it.
Memory is so important to us as human beings. Aside from daily functioning, our memory is necessary for a concept of ourselves. Who are we if we have no memories?
Life events force you to stop and think about memory sometimes. A good friend of mine suffered a subdural hematoma and incurred minor cognitive memory effects, which motivated my thinking about memory today.
Like my friend, many people confront this type of memory loss, sometimes early in life. The scientific name for the disorder ismild cognitive impairment (MCI), and the UCSF defines it:
by deficits in memory that do not significantly impact daily functioning. Memory problems may be minimal to mild and hardly noticeable to the individual.
Symptoms vary widly from difficulty remembering names to disturbances in the flow of conversation with a friend. People with MCI frequently lose things and tend to rely heavily on routine to help compensate for what they cannot remember. TheFolstein test is used as a psychological tool to determine the extent and severity of the impairment.
One initial caution is that certain medications can interfere with memory:Valium®, Ativan®, Benadryl®, Tylenol PM®, Advil PM® (both contain Benadryl®), and Cogentin®. This is not a comprehensive list but you can find them on the internet.
MCI can be caused by many experiences, too many to mention here, but it is wide spread enough that it merits exploration. According to the National Academies Press, more than 10 million people in the U.S. suffer from MCI.
Remedies and hope
According to the University of Virginia, there is no known cure for MCI, although some people improve with the use of Alzheimer's medication. But medicine is not generally considered a viable option.
Many websites resort to methods of compensating, like writing notes and strategically placing reminders. However, in the past decade we have discovered a couple of shocks about our own brains:
- They continually generate new nerve cells, thousands daily.
- They have neuroplasticity, meaning they can change and grow throughout an individuals lifetime. A person can become smarter and smarter right up to the end.
Depending on the cause of MCI, there may be damage to this normal functioning. However, many with MCI may have tools at their disposal to help improve memory function over time. Our brains grow and adapt over our whole lives.
According to the FDA's website, measures can be taken to prevent and improve MCI's effects. These are rather common sense guidelines, but useful to consider:
- Maintain low cholesterol and blood pressure.
- Refrain from alcohol and tobacco (implied are other unnecessary drugs).
- Exercise regularly.
- Eat healthy.
- Nurture relationships with people and create new ones.
- Stimulate your brain actively.
I end the list on the idea of stimulation because this is the heart of the questions and debates: can active training be done to maintain or improve memory, especially for people with MCI?
The FDA notes that "some experts" believe that pushing the brain to perform new, complex activities will help spur neural rejuvenation, create new neural networks, and improve the brain's ability to function. These experts suggest avid reading, writing, skill learning, game playing, and developing new hobbies.
The National Academies Press, in their review of the literature, point to the massive amount of material written on cognitive rehabilitation: their conservative estimate is 856 scholarly, peer reviewed articles. My intention to sift through this will be aided by current researchers writing on cognitive rehabilitation.
The research suggests that treatments are simply ineffective:
- Tasks involving practicing hierarchical management, placing items in order of importance.
- Goal setting and management training.
However, the researchers note that most common cognitive therapies at least do no harm. So, while there is no concrete evidence, the possibility exists that some therapies used by practitioners are effective and definitely not harmful. Specifically, the National Academies point to these beneficial tasks:
- Divided attention practice: actively paying attention to more than one task at a time, or multitasking.
- Social communication skills training: usually performed in small groups centered on improving the ability to communicate and clarify ideas and listen to the messages of others.
- External memory aids: notebooks, notes, audio recordings, visual cues, and alerting devices (this would include digital devices).
- Telehealth technologies: interaction with care givers over the phone and other means of communication, providing counseling and assistance.
The conclusion of the study by the National Academies is that much more research is needed. Most of the studies they reviewed had flaws or were inconclusive.
However, the ambiguity in the findings leaves hope for current remedies such as those mentioned by Discovery:
- Seek treatment for depression as many who deal with MCI suffer from it, and memory might be improved if it is alleviated.
- Always look for ways to keep both your brain and body active. Most of us live sedentary lives, but concentrating on being active in every way can improve memory.
- Practice visualizing and associating. In other words close your eyes and practice visualizing objects and people and associating them one with another. Visualization is a powerful memory tool.
- Take the time to pay attention. We require at least 8 seconds of concentration to retain something or someone in memory. Even more time is necessary if you want to commit them to long term memory. Consciously take extra time to register the details.
- Pay close attention to names and faces. Close your eyes and visualize the person's face and name.
- Use chunking to organize information and make it easier to remember. Your brain likes to categorize stuff and put it in folders like a computer. Help your brain by organizing information into chunks or groups for easier recall.
- When dealing with lists, use the method of loci. This means that you have places all around you that you are familiar with. Associate items on the list with the landmarks you know so well. This helps you remember by visualization, association, and previous knowledge.
- Use external reminders as the National Academies emphasized. Allow technology and tools to do trivial remembering work for you. This allows to focus more attention on the really important matters you need to recall.
- Always be looking for opportunities to practice these techniques because the more you do them, the easier they become. Whether you are at the grocery store, Walmart, work, or home, always be on the lookout for ways to practice remembering.
One final note about the apps for brain training that have become so popular lately. Initially they were hyped as the miracle cure to improve memory and brain power, and later bashed for using poor methods of evaluating data.
My own opinion is that they do no harm, and they may even help. If nothing else, the games are keeping your brain active, which is key.
While research remains to be done, ample evidence and research points us in some directions that can help with MCI. Try the methods out and find ones that work for you. Study up on memory on the internet or in a book. New information is released daily that can be helpful.
The more you know about how your brain works, the more empowered you are. Put yourself in the position of control through education, and be determined to defy those that say memory can't be improved. You can do it! Remember that your brain changes and you grow new neurons daily. Use this knowledge to empower your practice.
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