Wait, What Did I Want From This Room? Who Stole My Brain II
Last week, I blogged about the link between our hormones and our daily functioning, about how a drop in estrogen (like when we are premenstrual or in perimenopause) affects our executive function. One of the most common executive functions (brain circuits involved in getting stuff done) that suffer as we move into our 40s and 50s, is working memory.
MEMORY PROBLEMS IN PERIMENOPAUSE
Women in their 40s and 50s tend to experience memory problems like -
finding the right words
remembering where things are
and using short term memory to fulfill a goal (working memory)
WHY IS WORKING MEMORY SUCH HARD WORK?
Working memory is not exactly the same as short term memory. Working memory involves storing information temporarily, and then acting on or manipulating the information in some way. We have to hold information in memory while performing a task. Like remembering why you are walking into a room, multitasking, remembering multi-step instructions, weighing a decision or making a plan (organizing thoughts in your head). I have found that over the last 5 years, my ability to plan my day or even a weekend meal menu in my head has significantly diminished. What really helps me with this problem is to WRITE IT DOWN.
I’m also constantly forgetting something pretty soon after I set out to do it. Like going upstairs to do 2 things. I do the first, get distracted by something and then totally forget about the second! Case in point: This morning, as I as going up to get my son a sweater, my husband asked me to bring down his phone. Sweater was in the laundry room. Out goes the memory to bring down the phone and in pops the distraction: “Oh, now’s a good time to put on a load.” I couldn’t manage to hold the phone in my mind while noticing the new laundry load thought. Forgetfulness of any kind can make people feel that you are self-centered or inconsiderate, especially if they are not aware of these memory-age difficulties.
YOU MEAN I’M NOT LOSING MY MIND?
This is a time when women begin wondering if they have early onset dementia (loss of memory that interferes with daily activities). Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, marked by severe memory and functioning problems. The good news is that, of all the people who have Alzheimer’s, only about 5% develop symptoms before age 65.
Terry Matlen, in her book The Queen of Distraction, writes that “One of the key differences between hormonal related memory problems and dementia, is that with dementia, you no longer remember how to do things you’ve done many times before, like driving to the supermarket or following a favorite recipe. With dementia, there might also be permanent changes in mood and personality, whereas with hormonal memory problems, your moods are transient, you often come back to baseline…Of course if your memory suddenly changes significantly, you should discuss w your doctor, but all in all, changes in memory are common in perimenopause".
The Alzheimer’s Association distinguishes as follows:
Other symptoms of more serious dementia include:
difficulty making plans or solving problems
problems carrying out usual tasks at home, work, or during recreation
confusion with time or place
trouble comprehending visual images and spatial relationships (such as depth and distance)
new problems with speaking or writing
a lack of interest in work or social activities
prolonged changes in personality or mood
OK, WHEW! NOW WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT MY WEAK MEMORY?
Offload! Now that we know our memories are not what they used to be, we can stop relying on them. Some examples of offloading are writing reminders on a white board (if you have a mirror in a prominent place, you can use that with a whiteboard marker) , on to-do list pads, keep a notebook with a running list, use an app to manage your to-do list. There is no one magic method. Find the system that works best for you. My default is still writing on my hand when I’m in a rush, but that only works until I need to wash them, and it doesn’t a look very professional! So I also keep a to do list notebook, as well as a digital sticky note on the homescreen of my phone, for when my notebook is not handy.
Build in routines and habits. When you do something enough times, it becomes automatic and then you don’t even need to remember anymore. How to develop a habit? Everyone talks about reminders and daily repetition to create and strengthen the neural pathways in your brain; but if you want to fast-track your habit (like create a permanent place for your keys) it’s even been suggested to walk in, place your keys in their place and then walk out again, repeating the process a few times. Another way to develop a habit is to tie it to something you already do consistently – like unloading the dishwasher while you wait for the morning kettle to boil. I have a habit of putting my keys in the freezer when I need to remember to take the ice-cream with me in the car!
Use a variety of reminders – visual, auditory, verbal (say/sing out loud to yourself when going into a room to get something)
Mentally rehearse whatever it is you need to remember. The best time to engage in this mental rehearsal may be just before you fall asleep, since research shows that sleep consolidates memory. Picture what you have to remember the next day. Construct a detailed and elaborate image or description. The brain loves detail.
Create a “memory palace.” Associate the ideas or objects to be memorized with scenes in a well-known location, like your house (“palace”) or along a familiar walking route. This utilizes our evolutionary instinct to remember details of location – as cavemen/women, when we had to remember where the poisonous berries were, and where the good food supply was. Learn more about the Memory Palace.
Draw want you need to remember instead of write – it activates more parts of your brain and helps stuff stick. You first have to picture the object and then physically copy from that mental picture, forcing you to pay attention to details.
Use Technology – According to Peg Dawson and Richard Guare , life in this day and age is so complex that technology may be the only way to survive. Some of the apps I like best are:
Google Keep (where you can even make a handwritten note as opposed to typing – it’s known that handwriting also activated more brain parts and aids memory) –
Google Shopping List for shared grocery list – my family knows if it doesn’t get put on this list, it doesn’t get bought!
Tile - I have not personally used this but it sounds like a great way to keep track of objects. You attach their little tiles to keys, wallets or things you misplace.
Finally, a word about memory training programs. The consensus seems to be at the moment, that although there are a number of well-advertised computer-based programs to help people improve attention and working memory, the accumulated research on the efficacy of those programs show that people who practice those skills using computer games often get better at the games they are playing. But those gains may not carry over to real life (Dawson, Peg. The Smart but Scattered Guide to Success. Guilford Publications).
So there you have it. Memory problems are real as well as normal in our 40s and 50s. I hope you can make use of some of the tools above to compensate for this frustrating and sometimes worrisome experience.