Several years ago, my friend Anna and I agreed to separately watch the movie “Away from Her” (which features an Oscar-nominated performance by Julie Christie as a woman suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease). We planned to get together to discuss any insights from the movie so I could write about our discussion for HealthCentral’s Alzheimer’s site. Both Anna and I had dealt with caregiving for someone with dementia, but as we began our conversation, I found that I was surprised that the movie had surfaced worries on Anna’s part that she might be in the early stages of dementia. Anna, who at the time was in her early 50s, described how she was forgetting things that she was able to remember before. For instance, she told me about how she had recently gone to the grocery store and picked up some frozen dinners. She remembered going through the checkout line and paying, but couldn’t figure out for the life of her where those dinners were when she got home. I listened with concern and encouraged Anna to tell her doctor about her worries when she had her annual physical examination the following week.
Later that week, I called Anna to find out what happened. She described how she told her doctor (a woman) about the grocery store incident. The doctor reached over, patted her on the arm, and said, “When you look at me, do you notice anything unique?” Anna gave the doctor a once over and replied “No.” The doctor pointed out that she was wearing only one earring. “I went running out of my house this morning and forgot to put the other one on,” she explained, adding that as women age, we have more difficulty multi-tasking. Combine that with shifting hormones that mark perimenopause and you can easily experience lapses in memory that might be confused for the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
So how can we limit the memory lapses that seem to happen on a daily basis. Over the weekend, I was catching up on my reading and noticed that the June 2009 issue of More featured “Get Smarter: New Rules for Saving Your Memory.” In the article, author Judy Jones interviewed Dr. John Medina, director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University, affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, and author of Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School.
Here is some of the pertinent information from their discussion:
- Everyone loses approximately 85,000 neurons a day; we are at our mental peak when we’re 18-19 years of age.
- There are four separate processing steps to remembering one piece of information: encoding, when information enters your brain; storage, which determines what you’re going to do with a piece of information once you encode it; retrieval, which is being able to come up with the information again; and forgetting, a controlled effort to forget information that isn’t relevant and that you really don’t need.