Remembering to relax, concentrate key to memory

September 12, 1995|By Suzanne Curley | Suzanne Curley,Newsday

"Hello . . . Hello .. . you know," the caller says sheepishly, after identifying herself, "I know I'm returning someone's call, but I forget whose."

"That's OK," the person on the other end replies. "I know I did call you, but I can't remember why."

Scenes like this are becoming common as baby boomers slouch more forgetfully than regretfully -- toward 50.

Yet another pair of eyeglasses goes astray. More and more "belated birthday" greetings get sent, more and more belatedly. Important pieces of paper -- some, in fact, lists of things not to forget -- sit gathering dust in special places that no one can remember. Running out of Post-Its becomes a minor tragedy. And wristwatches that beep reminders and memo pads that can be stuck to a --board suddenly qualify as alluring gift possibilities.

Meanwhile, words for simple, everyday objects such as "dish towel" creep further from the tip of the tongue, where they belong. With them go the names of those we met yesterday and of people we've known since our hair was all its original color.

"Our impression is that nine out of 10 people you ask would be unhappy with their memory," says Matthew Goerke of Mega Memory in Merrillville, Ind., billed as "the world's largest memory training institute."

Failing memory is a source, he says, of much negative self-image. "And everyone feels like they are alone with it," he adds. "Then people come to a class and are surprised at how many others have this same problem."

Conflicting messages

Is the memory loss many of us perceive real or just an illusion?

"In an age when Alzheimer's disease gets so much publicity, anxiety about memory loss is very common," says Andrew Weil, a physician and author of "Natural Health, Natural Medicine" (Houghton Mifflin, 1995). "In my experience this fear is more of a problem than memory loss itself, since the vast majority of people who think they are losing memory are not."

Others disagree.

"That's pure nonsense," says psychologist Thomas Crook III of the Memory Assessment Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. "The great majority of people, by the time they are 50 or 60, have experienced memory difficulties." But, he adds, "it is extremely unlikely that this is an early warning of Alzheimer's disease. It's much more likely that it is a normal developmental change."

His opinion comes after 11 years' research studying nearly 50,000 people to see how memory and learning change with age.

In previous times, old age was perceived as a period of death and disease, and that was that, Mr. Crook says.

"But now the media sends out conflicting messages, such as, 'It's great to grow old, nothing bad really happens, it's the best time of your life.' On the other hand, you also hear, 'There's a dreaded disease out there called Alzheimer's that involves incapacitation, a vegetative state, inability to recognize your own family -- and the first sign is memory loss.' "

Mr. Crook favors a new entry -- "age-associated memory decline" -- in the fourth and latest edition of the "American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" (called "DSM-4"), to describe people over 50 "without dementia . . . who have adequate intellectual function, who complain of gradual memory loss since early adulthood that interferes with important tasks of daily life, and who show objective evidence on performance tests that such loss has occurred."

He wanted the problem to have a label, the better to find a solution within the realms of scientific research. "The whole idea that we just accept what nature dictates is alien to medicine and science," says Mr. Crook. He makes the analogy of using eyeglasses to correct farsightedness.

"When people complain to their doctor that they can't read the newspaper, we don't simply accept that as a natural condition of aging, we try to alter that state if we can," says Mr. Crook. "The same thing is true about memory: Most people will experience memory loss, and if we can do something about that, we should."

At 47, Moshe Lachter of New York City says he hasn't found any great change in his memory, despite the amount of detail in his life. He runs his own advertising design company.

"But I've never been able to remember names. All the things they tell you to do, like repeat the name right away a few times, I've never done them," he says.

"I'm just too distracted during introductions. I'm thinking of other things."

At work, though, it's a different story. Mr. Lachter says he's never had a single disaster that could be laid at the door of forgetfulness. Maybe because, he guesses, it's just easier to remember those things that are crucial to one's survival.

Fear of forgetfulness

While anxiety seems to be a boon to Moshe Lachter's tracking of detail, generally it acts as an enemy of good recall.

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