Failing memory, what to do?
August 24, 2005 4:00 AM   Subscribe

Failing memory filter: My memory, never good, is noticeably deteriorating and I'm almost resigned to that. Anything that would slow this process would be welcome but I'm really looking for effective strategies to compensate - in particular, would a PDA help (for to-do lists) or are there other tools I should be using?

Things that bother me, I'm letting tasks drop at work, finding that I've been asked to do something and have actually done it, but I have no recollection of it at all. It's becoming embarrasing and co-workers are puzzled. I'm resigned to it being a part of the ageing process (I'm 45) but I need to find work-arounds otherwise I won't be able to hold a job. All suggestions tips and tricks are very welcome. What works for you?
posted by grahamwell to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Please see a doctor and make sure your memory loss isn't a sign of a problem.
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:12 AM on August 24, 2005

I'd 2nd By The Grace of God.

But I think that organization is the key to coping no matter what the cause of memory loss.

Keep a detailed diary of committments and things to do and use the alarm functions as reminders. Try not to use too many devices/handwritten notes for this - if you get a pda, perhaps it would be better to use that exclusively. Otherwise: postit notes....pc at work....pc at home....pda ---- could lead to confusion.

That said, postit reminders for specific important things on the fridge or pc monitor as an adjunct to a main diary system like the pda can help. The act of becoming organized like this, if it's just the usual manifestations of aging, should keep you on an even keel and if you are habitual and diligent about it (enter things in the pda when you hear of them and don't leave it until later) you'll also feel a bit more confident generally. But: get checked out by a doc anyway.

I'm sure others will chime in with memory enhancing activities. (Oh, there's also the background health thing about too little sleep/exercise/poor nutrition/too much booze/drugs that may amplify the situation to consider)
posted by peacay at 5:05 AM on August 24, 2005

I'm 25 and I don't always seem to remember things to do without the aid of a PDA, but given that my to-do list is currently at 259 items, I'm not surprised at all I forget a few. Could it just be that you have too much stuff on your mind?

A PDA works great, as long as you use it. Everything you have to do must go into the PDA immediately. Either that or some other collection box that you know you will check in order to put it into your PDA later (e-mail inbox, post-it in your in-box).
posted by grouse at 5:05 AM on August 24, 2005

If you are just dealing with minor forgetfulness, I find a pocket notebook and pen more useful than a PDA just because the input is generally faster, or writing on your hand if you don't care about the respect of your coworkers.
If you are suffering sudden and or severe memory loss, definately see a doctor. It may be stress or depression, but early onset alzheimers is something you'll want to rule out as soon as you can.
posted by arruns at 5:18 AM on August 24, 2005

If you don't have a good memory, you have to have good habits. Always put the car keys in the same place, always do things in the same order.

My mother's theory is that as we age, we have more stuff to remember. She's 84. She says you have to learn to delete files when you're through with them to make more drive space. (She doesn't say it that way, but it's what she means.) Memory improves with practice, that's been working for me. Keep learning all your life, it's good practice. There's a lot of evidence that using the mind keeps it sharp. The point here is, you can actually fight back a little.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 5:28 AM on August 24, 2005

See a doctor, agreed, appointment made, will do. Perhaps I exaggerate the problem, it's mild really so I'm not too worried, I just feel I need to reorganise aspects of my behaviour to put in fail-safes against forgetfulness and I'm interested a) in any tricks/techniques you might have and b) whether a PDA is actually useful in this context (I used to have one, it wasn't that helpful, then it broke and I was really stuffed). If you think a PDA's the thing, what's the best - best to-do and calendaring, best to organise an untidy life? Ideally including a cellphone so there's one less thing to lose. Money no object.

On preview, unrepentanthippie, that's exactly what I'm after, any specific exercises?
posted by grahamwell at 5:36 AM on August 24, 2005

(It's not just for fear of Alzheimer's that you should go to a doctor, by the way. Your memory loss could be caused by something as benign — and treatable — as vitamin deficiency or low hormone levels. Do get it checked out — it may help enormously.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:47 AM on August 24, 2005

Oh, there's actually 11 steps to a better brain. And I forgot MentatWiki, which specifically has memory exercises.
posted by scazza at 6:20 AM on August 24, 2005

grahamwell, this may be more than you're looking for, but I'd give David Allen's book Getting Things Done a try. He lays out a plan for organizing and keeping track of basically everything in your life. He actually says (paraphrase, of course), that the trick is not to try to remember anything that you have to do--that's the route to losing control. Instead, his system does what your brain can't do, and does it better.

I've only just started using it, but it has decreased my stress greatly. It is a bit of a time investment, though.
posted by CiaoMela at 6:24 AM on August 24, 2005

I've heard that doing crossword puzzles is good exercise for parts of your brain. I don't know if this is true, but it certainly can't hurt. Get some co-workers together over your break and race to see who can finish today's newspaper crossword first. :)
posted by srah at 6:39 AM on August 24, 2005

Second scazza's recommendations of brain calisthenics and CiaoMeta's recommendation of Getting Things Done (which system can be implemented with a PDA, or not.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 7:08 AM on August 24, 2005

As far as the PDA vs notebook-and-pen thing goes, put me down firmly in the notebook-and-pen column.

Do not overengineer solutions when your brain is already jumbly. Now that I am over the age of 40, I have had to resort to a shirt-pocket-sized notebook and a trusty pen to assist my rusty short-term memory. You don't have to learn anything except the habit of making notes and it's not likely to fail on you at an inopportune moment with everything you need to know in it.

I hate having to be a note-taker, because I have always prided myself of being able to remember everything I needed to know, but it does actually work.
posted by briank at 7:17 AM on August 24, 2005

All of the suggestions above are good, and you are right to get this checked out. It may ease your mind somewhat to know that if your forgetfulness bothers you, that is a good sign that it is not Alzheimer's disease or something similar. People with those conditions have no idea they are losing their mental function and consequently just insert random memories into their conversations or confabulate their way through them rather than stop and express concern that they can't remember what is going on.
posted by TedW at 7:30 AM on August 24, 2005

I third the recommendation for Getting Things Done, and in particular the Hipster PDA.
posted by ambrosia at 9:55 AM on August 24, 2005

I normally don't suggest vitamins (supplements), but there seems to significant evidence that folic acid might help:

In June, a Dutch study found that middle-aged people who took 800 mcg of folic acid a day for three years had significantly improved scores on memory tests. Those who took the supplements essentially performed as though they were two to five years younger.
posted by WestCoaster at 11:01 AM on August 24, 2005

I'm 25. Two years ago I was under a huge amount of stress at work, and I found myself forgetting EVERYTHING. Like I would tell some co-workers a random anecdotal story, and then ten minutes later, re-tell the same exact story to the same people. That was _really_ freaking me out.

First thing I did was make them buy me a Sidekick. That helped me get tasks and appointments organized. Then a few months later, I quit that job and moved to one that was much much less stressful.

The Sidekick still helps me keep organized, but on the whole I find that I am way less forgetful now that my overall life situation is more normal. This experience has led me to believe that stress can be a big factor in how forgetful you are. Sure the PDA helps me remember that today is my sister's birthday (it really is), but that's not what has stopped me from telling people the same stories over and over; I just remember not to.

Check your stress level and see if there's something you can do to smooth things out a little.
posted by autojack at 12:38 PM on August 24, 2005

grahamwell: Sorry for the delay, just home from work.
I, too, have seen it said that crossword puzzles are good for this. I don't enjoy them myself, but they say it works.

Since you asked, in my case, I noticed growing up that the entire family on my father's side seemed to lose it pretty bad by the time they were in their 40s or so. Something like premature senility seemed to set in. I thought about it, and decided it was probably genetic (probably true as my father had problems) and the only thing I could think of to fight back was to continue learning all my life. It was an immediate threat to me, and I thought about it a lot, but there wasn't any guidance then. It was a long time ago, and nobody even thought there might be a way to fight it, so I was guessing. I spent a long time in college, not intensively but over a long time frame. I read all my life, constantly, from childhood on. After I left college, I read until they invented computers, and then I had it made. Wow! All my life I had wondered about things, and had no way to look for answers. Now I could just wonder about something, Google it, and have an answer in minutes. I wanted to learn graphics to go with photography, and did. Then I wanted to learn HTML so I could post what I made, and I did. I'd be the first to tell you I'm not real good at either, not enough time in the day, but passable.

I don't think there's anything special to do, or any one way to go at it, I think it's just a matter of studying anything you are interested in, to any level you want to understand it. If you get bored, pick something else. What matters is not the destination, it's the journey. Surfing the Internet, and picking up things you care enough to try to remember as you go, is a perfectly good mental exercise. Basically, as they now understand these things, keeping your mind active is more useful than any other approach.

Is it too late to start at 45? Heck, no. I'm 58, and I'm sharper than most of the kids I work with half my age, and I've got a better memory. I don't mean that to sound arrogant, I mean for it to sound like encouragement. (I've still got those same bad genes I started with, the only difference is that I fought back.) I'm not as sharp as I was at 30, nobody is.

I have seen it said that you cannot learn things by rote memory, you have to find something in your existing base of knowledge that the new thing can attach itself to. Just start with anything you're interested in and learn more about it, as your interests change, just add to a different corner of what you already know. New things are perfectly OK, just work your way into them by associating it with something you're comfortable with. (Graphics is sort of like photography, and HTML is sort of like Illinois Central Editor, an incredibly old mainframe language I had some experience with.)

One last thing: There are different kinds of memory, associated with different areas of the brain, and the more of them you involve in the process, the more likely you are to remember things. When you learn something new, teach it to someone else, using the speech centers helps fix it. Really short things, just write it down, look at it, and throw away the paper. Now you've sucked some brain motor centers into the plot, and some visual areas. With a little practice, you can learn to (this is so geeky, I'm embarrassed, but the easiest way to explain it) just attach a flag to a file. I need to do this, and I am not allowed to lose the file until I've accomplished it. Then once you've done it, you're allowed to forget it totally and completely to make room for more stuff. It helps if you attach the flag to something that will trigger a reminder. When I do this, which I'm going to anyway, I should do that at the same time. Those little flags will hang around for a surprisingly long time, until the trigger event happens, and here's your file. It just pops into consciousness.

I apologize for the length of the thing. I tend to over-explain. Anything you enjoy, you'll stick with for a while, and that's all that matters. Worst case, you can keep from losing any more ground, and best case, you can improve your memory more than you probably suspected.

Just my opinions and theories, and "Everything in this book may be wrong." (Do see a head guy, and let them make sure you have nothing organic, it's just the right thing to do.)
posted by unrepentanthippie at 8:03 PM on August 24, 2005

Thanks everyone. I have folic acid (and a doctor's appointment), GTD is on order - but best of all, ambrosia, the Hipster PDA is fantastic - I like. Thanks again.
posted by grahamwell at 7:19 AM on August 25, 2005

And to reinforce unrepentanthippie's comments above, one of my best (beginner) music students is 63 years old, and one of the sharpest guys I know. He works at it, keeping in good physical shape, gets lots of sleep, and learns new things all the time. He's a bit more aggressive than I would be about staying organized, but it sure works for him.

I've noticed a general decline in my ability to recall things over the last few years (I'm 48), but I put that down to work stress, chronic lack of sleep, and being in the hectic childrearing years. A PDA helps quite a bit, if you use it.
posted by sneebler at 6:58 PM on August 26, 2005

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