It's all too easy to forget

Memory lapses can be embarrassing. But there are steps you can take to sharpen up your mind, says Catherine Nixey

Stuart Henderson
Monday 29 March 2004 00:00 BST

Forgetfulness in geniuses is often considered to be a sign of their brilliance. Einstein was famous for being hopelessly absent minded. GK Chesterton was so forgetful that he once sent a telegram to his wife from a railway station, saying: "Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?"

Forgetfulness in geniuses is often considered to be a sign of their brilliance. Einstein was famous for being hopelessly absent minded. GK Chesterton was so forgetful that he once sent a telegram to his wife from a railway station, saying: "Am in Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?"

But among the rest of us, such "senior moments" are considered merely to be a sign of ineptitude. "I can be giving a meeting, and when I turn to introduce the person next to me I've completely forgotten their name," says Jeremy Lincoln, a 62-year-old managing director. "Or I'll go to the shops, get there, and be utterly unable to remember what I went for. It does make you feel a bit foolish."

Forgetfulness does not just afflict the old. However, most of us do become more forgetful with age. "Your brain, just like the rest of your body, starts to deteriorate," says Dr Celeste de Jager of Oxford University's Optima Institute. "And what we call 'working memory' - your short-term memory - is what you see being affected. The common thing is that people forget where they've put things, or they can't remember the word that they want as quickly as they used to."

And to those with medical dictionaries, such lapses can be alarming. But there is little need to be worried. "It is quite wrong for people to assume that, just because they are becoming forgetful, they have got dementia," says Richard Morris, professor of neuroscience at Edinburgh University. "I constantly have to reassure people that aspects of forgetting are perfectly normal, especially as you age. I'm seeing them in myself, and I'm only in my fifties."

Whether and how much a person's memory deteriorates depends very much on the individual. "It is not by any means inevitable that memory declines with age," says Professor Morris. "One of the main characteristics of ageing in relation to memory is that there is great variability. Some people can retain very sharp faculties, including memory, well into their nineties."

So what makes the difference? "There are many things that seem to be beneficial in preventing deterioration of memory," says Dr de Jager. '"Exercise is one, as is having a good diet - there are a number of studies that have shown that vitamin deficiency, of the B vitamins, vitamin E and even vitamin C, can adversely affect your memory. And some herbal supplements can be helpful."

One such supplement is Actimind, which went on sale this year. It contains a combination of Panax Ginseng and Gingko Biloba, and itsmakers claim that it can improve your short-term memory by between seven and nine per cent - and a survey into memory that they carried out would indicate that we need it.

"Seventy-five per cent of people we interviewed admitted to walking into a room and forgetting why they were there," says Robin Bishop, a spokesperson for Actimind. "And 17 per cent of men admitted to forgetting the name of someone they've slept with. So I think we really need this supplement." Well, quite.

The supplement benefits the brain in much the same way as exercise does - by increasing blood flow to it. "Gingko, especially in combination with ginseng, has been shown to help improve memory," says Dr de Jager. "It dilates your blood vessels and that increases the amount of oxygen that can get to the brain, so it has more energy, and that helps it to function better."

Other studies have found that the hormone oestrogen can have a beneficial effect on memory in women. The influence of hormones might explain why many women report poor memory at certain times during their menstrual cycle, and why so many complain of "pregnancy brain".

Anything that exercises your mind is also thought to be good for the memory - the "use it or lose it" theory. "Ballroom dancing is good for memory," says Dr de Jager, "as is bingo. They both call on you to think about several things at once - to work out a strategy for getting around the room or to remember what lines your numbers are on." Though if you don't feel quite ready for the bingo hall there are other ways. "All social interaction seems to be good for the brain," says Dr de Jager, "as long as it's something that keeps your mind active."

And if you do find things slipping from your memory, there are certain tricks that you can learn to help you remember things. "It has been shown that if you can associate ideas with each other then you are much less likely to forget them," says Dr de Jager. "This is the principle mnemonists use. So I might say that number one is Richard Nixon, number eight is golf. So if I have to remember the number 18 I will simply think of Richard Nixon playing golf." Though what 81 might be is harder to imagine.

Other factors, too, can be both beneficial and detrimental to memory function. "Stress can help - but it can also harm," says Dr de Jager. "It all depends on your coping ability. For some people, stress is a good thing because it gets them motivated. But for others, it can be a real problem. If it begins using up their energy, and worrying them, then it can start to have a degenerative effect on the brain, and hence make them more forgetful."

However, forgetting things in itself is not a wholly problematical thing. "I constantly have to reassure people that aspects of forgetting are not only perfectly normal but also vital to normal functioning," says Professor Morris. "It is vital to clear one's mind to be able to think about new things. Imagine if one was unable to forget things. We are constantly absorbing a mass of information, and most of it is unnecessary. And the emotional burden of not being able to forget anything would be very hard."

The Argentinian novelist Jorge Louis Borges wrote a story called "Funes, the Memorious", based on exactly this idea. The hapless Funes is unable to forget a single detail - any raindrop, wrinkle, meal - from his life. Overwhelmed by his ability, he becomes a tortured and helpless recluse. It sounds absurd, but there have in fact been cases of famous mnemonists who genuinely seem almost unable to forget, and as a result suffer greatly.

So it seems that the ideal situation lies somewhere between the two. You probably don't want to forget the name of your lover, but nor do you want to remember the name of everyone you have ever met.

"I always think that a good memory is a balance," says Professor Morris, "a balance between being able to remember things - and remembering to do things - but also being able to clear out things that are unimportant. You really don't need to know what you had for breakfast 17 days ago."

So if you want a good memory you should eat well, see your friends, and above all not worry about it. Not only is stress counterproductive, but it is also probably unnecessary, as the consequences of most memory lapses, even the ones that seem important, are usually trivial - even when you are at a train station trying to get somewhere. As Chesterton himself said: "The only way I have discovered of catching a train is to miss the train beforehand." And he should know.


* Take exercise. "You can't concentrate in a stuffy room," says Celeste de Jager. "I go to the gym and try and get as much fresh air as I can." Taking the dog for a walk will help clear the cobwebs.

* Eat well and eat regularly. Broccoli, cranberries, apples and blueberries will feed the memory with the vitamins it needs. "Older people tend not to make as much of an effort when cooking for one," says de Jager. "But eating properly will help slow the ageing process. Making sure you have a good breakfast will help give your sugar levels that extra bit of a boost in the morning that the body needs."

* Use your head. Well, your brain at least. Activities that require strategic thinking such as bingo, card games or crosswords will get oxygen to the brain and stimulate your memory. Even if you are stuck behind a desk all day, simple breathing exercises will help.

* Forming associations will thwart forgetful moments. When being introduced to someone, de Jager recommends "trying to think of something else about them" to jog the memory.

* Write post-it notes. Then all you have to do is remember to look at the fridge door.

* Be a creature of habit. Getting into routines such as putting keys in the same place every day will mean there is one less thing to remember.

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