Memory loss: Forget about it If your aging steel-trap mind seems rusty, you're not alone.

September 06, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

You walk into the room purposefully, then stop dead in your tracks. You haven't a clue why you're here.

Worrisome, isn't it?

You couldn't remember your best friend's phone number after not dialing it for a couple of weeks. And recall the name of someone you just met? Forget it.

Which is, of course, exactly what you've been doing lately.

You and everybody else, it seems. America's population of graying baby boomers has become as obsessed with memory loss as they once were about having great abs. Memory remedies are a mega industry, from alternative-medicine "cures" to classes on memory techniques. Not to mention endless books and tapes that promise you'll never forget anything again.

By 2005 13 percent of Americans will be 65 or older. That's a lot of folks forgetting where they parked their cars.

No matter that 25-year-olds also forget where they parked their cars. Once past a certain age, people stop blaming their too-busy lives and start worrying about the death of brain cells and the possibility of Alzheimer's.

Yet, for all the hysteria about age-related memory loss, some scientists aren't even convinced it exists.

"Is there such a thing? I would say no," says Dr. Paul Costa, chief of the laboratory of personality and cognition at the Gerontology Research Center of the National Institute on Aging. "It takes longer in general to perform all mental operations as we age, but it's a continuous process. 'Age-related memory loss' implies a categorical shift."

We probably have more on our minds as we age, and are often on our way to information overload. The next time you forget a name, consider how many names and faces a 50-year-old has to remember compared to a 5-year-old.

To complicate matters, neuroscientists aren't sure what "normal" forgetfulness is. People vary tremendously in what they can and do remember.

Students of Dr. Michael Gloth, head of the department of geriatrics at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore, are amazed at his ability to cite detailed journal articles off the top of his head. "But my little girl runs up and down our hall saying, 'Where's my briefcase, where's my keys?' - she's mimicking me," Gloth says with a laugh. Memory is "individual-specific," he says.

Besides, there are simply too many things that have an influence on how well we remember, from the time of day to the amount of stress in our lives to our confidence levels. Researchers have even found that if you simply think you're doing something that improves your memory, you remember better.

"There's a 20 to 40 percent placebo effect," says Dr. Barry Gordon, director of the Johns Hopkins Memory Disorders Clinic and author of "Memory: Remembering and Forgetting in Everyday Life" (MasterMedia, 1995).

All this makes it difficult to study memory loss. Still, we don't need a neuroscientist to tell us something is wrong when we forget a familiar word or lock the keys in the car.

So what are we going to do about it? Unfortunately, the answers the memory experts have for us are often no sexier than "make a list." Worse, they sometimes involve hard work. Those options will follow, but first ...


Wouldn't it be nice if we could just pop a pill and voila! a better memory? Scientists are divided on whether research proves that supplements and other memory enhancers are effective in any significant way, but here are the ones usually touted:

Ginkgo biloba

This herb seems to improve blood flow to the brain. The results of studies are mixed, however, and one of the most important studies had a huge dropout rate.

Vitamin E

It may slow the progression of Alzheimer's; some evidence suggests a deficiency may lead to a reduction in memory.

Hormone replacement therapy

Studies show estrogen may lower the risk of Alzheimer's in postmenopausal women. It's not clear whether hormone replacement therapy affects normal forgetfulness. The negative effects of taking estrogen have been well documented; and the decision to take the drug should, of course, be made with a doctor.

Coffee, tea, chocolate

Don't laugh. In reasonable doses, these make you more alert, and therefore you may learn and remember better. A Hershey bar doesn't seem like a serious solution to memory problems, but as Gordon says, "I'm not yet convinced supplements work. I get more out of caffeine, sugar and fat."

Phosphatidylserine (PS)

This is the one you're going to be hearing more about in the near future, although it has been around a long time. A new book by Thomas Crook and Brenda Adderly, "The Memory Cure" (Simon & Schuster, 1998), has just been published. If it becomes a best seller, health food stores won't be able to keep PS on their shelves.

"This is not a magic bullet," says Crook, "the title of the book aside. But it does have quite a clear effect. Follow the other [memory-enhancing] steps in the book, and you really can largely reverse the effects of age-associated memory impairment."

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