Written by Carrie Colwes Hymowitz, Psy.D. and Judi Markowitz, Psy.D., Memory Helpers
Signs of memory loss might be evident in such ways as forgetting appointments or having difficulty remembering to take medication, forgetting a family member’s name or important phone numbers, and losing things. Other problems may include having difficulty keeping track of the date or word-finding difficulties. While many people occasionally encounter lapses in memory or concentration, it becomes an issue when it is more frequent and severe. That is when it is a good idea to meet with a physician to help determine the cause. While there could be several reasons for memory difficulties, dementia will be the focus of this article. There are several different types of dementia, the most common being Alzheimer’s disease, followed by vascular dementia and then dementia with Lewy Bodies. It is helpful to know what kind of dementia your loved one has in order to learn about the expectations, differences in progression, and treatment options.
A recent New York Times article titled “A Simple Way to Better Remember Things: Draw a Picture” suggests that there are techniques that can help you remember things. A Yale postdoctoral study completed by Jeffrey Wammes, Ph.D. at University of Waterloo concluded that drawing a picture of something you want to remember is one of the best mnemonic strategies to use. It is a three-step process: visualize what you want to remember, draw a picture of it and then look at your drawing. The idea is that if you activate different areas of the brain, it helps you remember better.
In addition to various mnemonic strategies, diet has been found to ward off memory loss. Dr. Martha Clare Morris from Rush University wrote that diets high in Vitamin E and dark leafy greens play a role in reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease. In addition, Daniel G. Amen, M.D. and William S. Harris, Ph.D. found that foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids are also helpful. Foods that are a good sources of Omega 3 fatty acids are fish, nuts, avocados, and berries. Moreover, physical exercise is not only good for your health, it has an added benefit of memory retention. In particular, one study conducted by Guillen Fernandez, Ph.D. in the Netherlands found that waiting to exercise 4 hours after being presented with something you want to remember is optimal for retention of information.
Additional strategies to help with memory are writing things down and making associations with information to be recalled. In particular, unusual associations work best. Interestingly, chewing gum while trying to remember something improves memory and helps with concentration but Serge Onyper, Ph.D. of St. Lawrence University cautioned that it only helped while you are trying to learn the material, not during recall. Another interesting technique is to use rosemary essential oil. Mark Moss, Ph.D. and his colleagues in England found that smelling rosemary helps with memory.
Individual cognitive treatment and neuropsychological testing can be provided for older adults suffering from memory loss. Through working with psychologists and mental health professionals in individual cognitive training, memory treatment encompasses exercises to help improve cognitive function. The specific exercises implemented for each individual client are based on his or her needs and interests. Some of the exercises the cognition-enhancing organization Memory Helpers utilizes includes stimulating computer-generated activities, language-based drills, spatial awareness exercises, practicing mathematic facts, and recalling personally relevant dates and names of relatives.
As family members, it is important to understand that people suffering from dementia forget recently learned information or entire conversations, and they sometimes start to forget significant dates and even loved ones’ names. It is literally out of their minds since their ability to create new memories is damaged. They were never able to process the new information in the first place to then store it for later retrieval. It is frustrating and can get people angry when they are told they never visit, even though they just came yesterday. It is often best to restate the information simply rather than pointing out, “I just told you, it is Wednesday” or whatever information you just shared. Even better, if you think about how upsetting it must be for them to not know something they are trying to think of, you can take a deep breath, smile and repeat the information in as little words as possible, maybe even with a comforting pat on the arm. Along the same lines, if they state the same story over and over again, it might be annoying but it is often best to just smile and listen another few times.
Overall, it is important to understand that people who have dementia cannot control their behaviors. They are not acting this way deliberately or to hurt anyone. Most of the time, they are not aware of their illness either, which makes it difficult for them to accept help sometimes. At The Kensington White Plains, there are professionals who are available to work with your loved ones on their memory and cognitive ability.