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Memories Are Made of This

Combine an event with details to improve memory, says study

FRIDAY, Sept. 14, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Can't remember where you parked your car? Where you left your keys? Don't give up on your memory just yet.

Memory loss isn't a given for all older people, and even those with memory problems can learn to compensate for their forgetfulness, says a University of Arizona study.

As they age, some people can remember a focal event, like parking a car, but forget important details, like where they parked it. But by explaining these different parts of memory to them, people can remedy the problem themselves, says study author Elizabeth Glisky, professor of psychology at the University of Arizona in Tuscon. The findings appear in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

"By training older people to pay attention not only to the focal point of an experience but also to the context of the experience and to integrate the two, we appear to be able to eliminate the type of memory deficit that troubles some older people," Glisky says.

Glisky and her colleagues conducted four experiments that compared the memory performances of healthy adults over age 65 and undergraduates at the University of Tucson. Three experiments involved 24 undergraduates and 24 older people; 32 older people and 24 undergraduates were involved in one experiment.

First, researchers used a series of neuropsychological tests to asses functioning of the participants' front lobes, the part of the brain where memory control originates. All the students' frontal lobes worked well, while half of the older had trouble with source memory, meaning they had a hard time remembering key details around a focal event.

"At the time the event takes place, some older people don't engage the same kind of mental processing that young people do," Glisky says. "They don't integrate the core event with its contextual features, while young people do it spontaneously."

But when researchers pointed this out to the older people and taught them skills to retrieve details surrounding an event as well as the event itself, their memory function was restored.

"If you tell them how to do it, they perform the same as the younger people," Glisky says.

Sonia Salari, a gerontology specialist at the University of Utah, says, "As long as there is no medical reason, like dementia, it sounds plausible that people could be trained to do mental exercises."

Glisky says the frontal lobe is affected by aging, but the number of older people with declining effectiveness is unknown. Why some are affected, and some are not also is unknown, she says.

"There's a huge variability, and we are looking to see what accounts for that variability," she says.

Salari says It could be simply a matter of exercising the brain; like any organ, it will atrophy if not used.

"Use it or lose it," she says.

Glisky says a lot of older people worry unnecessarily that their memory problems are an indication of Alzheimer's disease.

"Common kinds of problems, forgetting where you parked the car, forgetting names, walking into a room and forgetting why you're there, these are not indications of Alzheimer's, and there are things you can do to correct them. That's the good news."

What To Do

Information about how aging affects memory can be found at The Memory Key. For information about memory loss and exercises to maintain good memory, visit Harvard University.

Want to take a few simple tests to see how your brain measures up? Check Queendom.com or Brain.com.

SOURCES: Interviews with Elizabeth L. Glisky, Ph.D., professor of psychology and chairman of Gerontology Department, University of Arizona, Tuscon; Sonia Salari, Ph.D., assistant professor, Family and Consumer Studies Department, University of Utah, Salt Lake City; September 2001 Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.
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