The pitfalls of middle-age memory loss

by Margo White / 29 December, 2017

You know, what’s-his-name, Thingy.

The quiz question was, “Who in the Old Testament danced for Herod in exchange for the head of John the Baptist?” I knew this. I saw the eponymous play some 30 years ago in London, written by Oscar Wilde and directed by Steven Berkoff, who played Herod.

I could still remember Berkoff’s voice, pleading with the character whose name I couldn’t remember. “You know! Sounds like umami, or salami,” I said to the people I was doing the quiz with. I could hear Berkoff’s wheedling tone, as he begged her to dance. “Saaaaaami... or something?” My friends applauded when I finally found what I was looking for – Salome! – and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that to put myself out of my misery, I’d looked at the answer upside down beneath the quiz.

At least I can still read upside down. The New Yorker writer Patricia Marx has captured the funny side of middle-aged memory loss in a memoir called Let’s Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain my Mental Faculties, which includes several puzzles and quizzes, such as one in which she poses the question, “Who’s the guy who isn’t Robert De Niro?” Exactly! How many people over 50 have asked themselves that exact same question, or a variation on the theme, like “not Al Pacino, the other one”?

Failing memory has become a frequent topic of self-deprecating humour among my friends of a certain age. Sometimes we turn it into a party game. Over dinner recently, a group of us tried to remember the name of a movie we’d seen a couple of months earlier. “What’s the movie about the guy who lives with his family off the grid, starring that guy who was in The Lord of the Rings?” Captain America? Something like that, but we couldn’t remember. We could remember the name of Viggo Mortensen, eventually, but not the name of the character he played in Lord of the Rings. “Paragon?” Eventually, we did what people our age often do; pulled out the phone and googled “movie about the man who lives off the grid”. (Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen, formerly known as Aragorn.)

Our problems could partly be put down to what US-based psychologist and author of The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, Daniel Schacter, has called “blocking”. This occurs when wrong but related and more intrusive memories get in the way of the right ones. Think of them as unwanted visitors. The older you get the more likely they are to visit, so Salami will get in the way of Salome, Captain America in the way of Captain Fantastic, and Robert De Niro turns up when you were looking for Al Pacino. Maybe, you tell yourself, you just know too many people?

This is what I used to tell myself, that such memory lapses were part and parcel of a well-stuffed brain that, like a well-packed filing cabinet, was now so full it was just harder to find what you were looking for. But there comes a time when you wonder if the files are still in there, or have deteriorated beyond repair. On a brighter note: if you’re frustrated by memory lapses, and can remember the last time you forgot something in reasonable detail, it’s probably just garden-variety, age-related memory impairment. But if you aren’t aware of or can’t remember recent and significant memory lapses, then...

Not being able to remember the title Captain Fantastic is a lapse in semantic memory, the memory of facts and general knowledge. We could roughly remember what happened in the movie, though, which is episodic memory, the memory of experiences. Semantic memory and episodic memory fall within what’s called the explicit memory system – the memories of things that have happened to us or we have learned, and are intentionally trying to remember. Which is distinct from implicit memories, the skills and habits we do automatically, like driving to the movies.

So all those memories are probably stored somewhere in your explicit memory system; you’re just having trouble retrieving them. This can probably be put down to sluggish synapses, which (are supposed to) connect and fire up different brain cells, or neurons. “I had the worst mind blank ever this morning,” said a friend, when I mentioned what I was writing about. She’d been on Trade Me for some reason (she couldn’t remember why) and then thought she’d look up what her pottery collection might be worth. But when she went to look it up, she couldn’t remember the name of it. “You know, vintage New Zealand porcelain?” she said. I did know, picturing the six white vases displayed in my own living room. Then I wailed, “Oh, gaaawd, nooooo!”, because I couldn’t remember either. “Don’t worry, I googled ‘New Zealand porcelain’,” she said, as I offered to look beneath the vases in the living room. “But as my fingers hovered over the keyboard, I could almost see the hole in my brain, with stuff falling out of it.” (Two words: Crown Lynn.)

There are countless books offering advice on how to remember better. Repeating things (such as the name of movies) out loud to yourself apparently helps. So might creating an image or story around what you’re trying to remember, and the weirder the image or story the better. In Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, memory expert Ed Cooke suggests using this approach as a way to remember items on a shopping list – by, for instance, imagining “Claudia Schiffer swimming in [a] tub of cottage cheese”. (Sorry to have implanted that image in your mind, but I bet you won’t forget the cottage cheese next time you put it on your shopping list.)

Of course, it’s possible that if someone was to cut up your brain and stick slices of it under a microscope, they might find the plaques and tangles associated with dementia. But researchers who have examined the brains of people (who were kind enough to donate them to research) have found that many of the brains that exhibit the biological markers of dementia belonged to people who never exhibited the symptoms in life. Neurologists and neuroscientists now talk about “cognitive reserve”, which might help delay the symptoms associated with dementia (in some people) but also protect against ordinary cognitive decline.

Some people are born lucky, with an abundance of cognitive reserve, but others might want to start working on it. There’s increasing evidence that exercise will keep your brain fit, by getting oxygen and blood to it, and promoting neuronal growth factors in the process. So might mental exercise, like learning a new language, or how to knit or play Mahjong. Social stimulation also seems to be crucial, which is not the kind of thing a freelancer working from home, mostly alone, needs to hear – although probably does need to hear, having just found the cling film in the vegetable drawer.               

This was published in the October 2017 issue of North & South.


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