OPINION: Never forget: My tips to give you a robotic memory
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“I’ve got a head like a sieve.”
That’s quite an old-fashioned expression, isn’t it? So, I was surprised when it emerged from the lips of a man in his early fifties who was worried about his memory.
Interestingly, we only tend to become anxious about forgetting things once we hit our half century. Children, for instance, often fail to remember to tell mum or dad about a school trip, or about needing sports clothes on a particular day, or that they’ve been invited on a sleepover. But if they worry about this at all, it’s only because they think someone’s going to be cross with them.
A university lecturer once told me that his students often turn up on the wrong days for tutorials or forget to hand course work in. He said it never crosses their minds that they’re “losing the plot”.
Now, it’s understandable that we become more worried about memory as we age as so many of us have seen older relatives succumb to dementia. But the important fact to hang on to is that the kind of mild cognitive deterioration, which becomes more common as we grow older, does not automatically lead to anything more serious such as Alzheimer’s.
The accepted theory now is that our forgetfulness is actually more about a reduction in our ability to focus, which is a normal part of ageing. In other words, it’s our poor attention to detail which is the culprit in our vagueness rather than irreversible damage to our little grey cells.
Somebody at a party says to you: “Hello, I’m Fred.”
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You reply: “Hello, nice to meet you” and you move on. An hour later, you encounter this man again, and you have no clue what his name is because you weren’t concentrating when he told you. This is par for the course unless your dad is called Fred, or there’s some other personal resonance with the name. The simple truth is that you’re not going to remember it, because the information never went into your brain in the first place.
When I was speaking to the guy who was concerned about memory, he volunteered that often his kids tell him stuff about where they are going, or what happened at school, when he is cooking supper. We discussed this and agreed that, as it’s hard to take in facts when your mind is engaged elsewhere, from now on he’s going to say to his children: “Don’t tell me anything I need to remember when I’m doing something else. Write it down or speak to me when we’ve eaten.”
The other day I met a woman who lives nearby, whose name, I couldn’t bring to mind. Fortunately, it turned out she didn’t know mine either.
But on this occasion, we were in a local charity shop where, apparently, she works one day a week. Her name turned out to be Claire, so as I left, I told myself: “That was Claire, and she works in a charity shop on Thursdays.” Then I repeated this to myself several times as I walked home. Now, I feel confident that I’ll remember her name in the future because I’ve focused properly on her details.
Edgar Allen Poe once said: “To observe attentively is to remember distinctly.” I’m sure he was right.
Another important factor about memory concerns general brain health.
Fifteen years ago, when I first started writing about positive ageing, I was surprised to learn that energetic physical activity – walking fast, playing football with your grandchildren, digging in the garden etc – improved the volume of the brain and increased its abilities in all sorts of ways including the recall of facts and names.
In 2022, the link between physical activity and a healthy brain is common knowledge, and there are countless studies to prove that exercising robustly is one of the very best ways you can keep your brain in shape, and indeed improve its function.
Finally, as we age, we waste far too much time searching for items that we have temporarily mislaid – especially house keys, mobile phones and spectacles. This can panic us as we’re generally looking for them when we want to go out.
The best way to prevent this happening is to choose a maximum of three places where you can leave each item.
For example, limit your keys to being put in a little dish by the front door, or in your bag. Nowhere else. This means when you come home you must focus on where they’re going to end up, and not allow yourself to sling them on the kitchen worktop or pop them into your coat pocket.
Keep alert. And if you catch yourself casually putting them down in the wrong place, say loudly: ‘What the hell are you doing? Put them where you’ll know where to find them.’
If you do this when you live with other family members, they may look at you as if you’re mad. But there are worse things.
Sometimes we need to give ourselves a stern talking to. Better that than become increasingly vague – and stressed.