A word on the tip of your tongue that you can’t quite reach? Halfway through a task and can’t remember what you were doing? Speaking to someone you know well, but you can’t recall her name?
We have all experienced the occasional memory hiccup, but when these become more frequent, we start to wonder if we are having problems with our memory or even seeing the early signs of dementia.
Memory isn’t a physical thing that we can look at and see if it has changed. We have to rely on our own observations and those of others around us to recognise that our memory is not in tip-top condition.
To understand how we may suffer memory loss, it is necessary to have an understanding of how our memory works. Although many of the detailed workings of the brain have yet to be worked out (and may never be), research has given us a basic understanding of how we make and store memories.
Memories consist of the things we have seen, heard, tasted, smelt and touched. Scientists call this our sensory perception – the things we perceive from our 5 senses.
The start of a memory begins with these perceptions. So, if you are on a beach holiday you will see the sun, feel the sensation of warmth on your skin, the sound and smell of the sea and the taste of exotic food.
This information goes to a part of the brain known as the hippocampus and is processed into patterns to form what is known as the sensory memory. This type of memory is very short (lasting seconds) and is lost unless converted into your working memory.
The working memory is part of your short term memory. It has a limited capacity and is said that for most of us, it typically only holds seven items. Working memory lasts for 20 or 30 seconds and a good demonstration of this type of memory is when you try to memorise a telephone number before you write it down. After it is recorded, it is not useful to remember the number.
Any information which you deem to be more important (consciously or not) gets transferred to the rest of your short term memory. This allows you to remember when you last ate, the 5 items you need when going shopping, or that you need to empty the washing machine at 3 pm. Much of this information will not be retained for long as it will not help you say, in a week from today.
Information is then gradually transferred to our long-term memory. This process is more likely to happen if information is important, repeatedly used, or unique (eg. the first time you fell in love). Unlike short-term memory, long-term memory seems to have unlimited capacity.
With the correct trigger, we can pull up memories that we had no idea we had. It is thought that in adulthood, we can remember things from when we are as young as four years of age. Before then, the brain’s ability to make strong connections is not yet fully developed.
A simple observation of the people around you will suggest that some have better memories than others. However, there is no scientific evidence for this – and it is said that we all have the same capacity to remember things.
If we look a bit closer, we can see that some people are better at remembering some things, but not others. For example, you might be hopeless at remembering names, but may be able to reel off football scores from the past 5 years.
Having an interest in a particular field or already knowing something about a subject makes it easier for you to retain new information. Your brain is more able to store information if it can make connections with information already stored in your head.
Often the problem isn’t with your memory but with concentration. In order for a memory to be properly stored, it must go through the process described above. If the information is not important enough to make it past the sensory or working memory stages, it won’t get to the rest of your short-term memory and you are unlikely to be able to retrieve the information again. People struggle to find their pen, glasses or keys that they have just put down because they do so without thinking and where they have placed these items does not register in their brains.
As we age, our ability to remember has a tendency to decline. The ability for our brain to make relevant connections to stored information weakens as our brain cells shrink and become less efficient, leading to those so-called ‘senior moments’.
This process is thought to begin as early as our 20s but for many, only becomes noticeable in the 50s or beyond. Typically, you will have no problems retrieving old memories, but have difficulty remembering the time of your appointment with the dentist as short-term memory suffers.
If this is your experience, it can be easy to jump to the worst conclusions. However, remember that this is part of life and for most, no specific causes or medical problems lie behind a decline in memory.
One of the best ways to establish how well your memory is working is to test it. There are a variety available for you to use to assess your working, short-term and long-term memory.
Often these tests highlight that your brain is working normally, although if you are concerned, then you should always take the advice of a doctor.
What can be done to improve your memory depends on whether or not there is a problem underlying your forgetfulness. Some useful tips include:
- Being more aware – some people are just more easily distracted than others, often losing car keys, wallets or handbags. For these, improving your memory could simply be a question of paying more attention on a day-to-day basis
- Conditions such as the menopause, feeling low in mood or stressed and sleep problems can lead to poor concentration and memory. Address these underlying issues and your memory can improv
- Medication - Certain prescribed medicines can cause memory loss as a side-effect. If you suspect that this is the case with you, see your doctor
- Exercise – this not only improves your physical health but exercise encourages blood to flow round your body, forces you to breathe deeply and in doing so, helps to push more blood to your brain
- Diet – oily fish, nuts and seeds contain loads of essential fatty acids good for the brain. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration, this is especially so after you consume alcohol. And, of course, drink moderately.