Dear Doctor: My mother-in-law just turned 70. Physically, she's great, but when it comes to memory stuff, like remembering new names or shopping without a grocery list, she's not doing so hot. Do you have any mental tricks or exercises to help her? Her doctor says it's all normal and there's no sign of dementia, but my wife is still worried.
Dear Reader: Whether it's forgetting the name of a new acquaintance, where we left our sunglasses or whether we unplugged the coffee pot before leaving the house, we've all had our memory fail us. We agree with your mother-in-law's doctor that some degree of memory loss is indeed a normal part of aging. The volume of the brain, after peaking in our early 20s, then begins a gradual decline. Nerve cells in the brain begin to shrink or even atrophy, and interconnections between neurons become less numerous. Add in the changes to blood flow that occur as the cardiovascular system goes through its own aging process, and occasional struggles with memory come as no surprise.
Memory changes often begin with subtle episodes when you're in your 40s and progress from there. Although these changes have been a recognized part of aging for thousands of years -- the Greeks wrote about it in 700 B.C. -- the fear of dementia can turn each new lapse into an occasion for worry. It's understandable that, despite a doctor's reassurances, your wife and her mother are concerned.
The good news is that her doctor is monitoring your mother-in-law's symptoms and sees no cause for alarm. However, cognitive changes are often gradual. We think it's wise to remain aware of your mother-in-law's mental state.
In the meantime, there has been some interesting new research into improving memory for people of all ages.
According to a study published a few years ago in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, a powerful tool in the memory arsenal turns out to be drawing. Researchers asked participants in the study to remember a certain word. One group was asked to write the word down, the other to draw it. When it came time to remember the word, the group that made drawings was markedly better at recall than those who simply wrote the word down. What's really interesting is the drawing technique boosted memory not only of specific words and objects, but also of complex ideas and abstract concepts.
When it comes to remembering names, memory experts advise saying the name aloud as you meet the new person. More recent research found that you boost the memory effect if you use the name of a new acquaintance in conversation moments after you meet. That is, saying the name aloud to a third party helps you to remember it.
Finally, we've known for some time that exercise can help memory. Now a recent study in Nature Medicine suggests irisin, a hormone produced during exercise, is part of the reason. Irisin appears to not only improve brain health, but researchers say it may also lessen the damage that occurs during Alzheimer's disease.
Try sharing these facts and techniques with your mother-in-law. You may also find them to be useful in your own life.
(Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10880 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1450, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)