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Imagine That! A Better Memory

Mental technique can help even older folks remember daily tasks

FRIDAY, June 4, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- It's tough enough to remember important daily tasks when you're young. But for the elderly, forgetting something like a daily medication can have dire consequences.

However, the simple act of mentally picturing a future task is turning out to be a cheap, easy and highly effective way of making sure important things get done, claims a new study.

The three-minute technique, called "implementation imagination," effectively boosted daily blood sugar testing rates by 50 percent in one group of seniors, researchers report.

"You can make things work better for yourself by doing this simple thing. It's not hard and it's actually sort of fun," said psychologist researcher Denise Park, director of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Illinois. She and co-author Dr. Linda Liu published their findings in the June issue of Psychology and Aging.

Everyone has done it: You try and remember to pick up a quart of milk on the way home from work -- mentally repeating "get milk" over and over in your mind. But on the drive home, that crucial stop at the grocery store just doesn't happen.

According to Park, the problem of forgetting important daily tasks only worsens as you get older. "As you age, your ability to engage in what we call controlled or executive functions declines," she explained.

Executive functions involve deliberate, planned actions that are processed in the brain's frontal cortex. Unfortunately, "the frontal cortex shrinks with age, and these frontal processes become less efficient," Park said.

For the elderly, no daily task is more important than taking medications that prevent or fight serious illness. Yet study after study shows patient compliance with doctors' orders remains troublingly low.

Jeffrey W. Elias is chief of the Cognitive Aging Program at the National Institute on Aging. He described medical non-compliance among the elderly as "a big problem, with some estimates suggesting that just 40 percent of patients are compliant."

Realizing that reminder techniques that rely on the frontal cortex might not work, Park's team looked for help elsewhere in the brain. They focused on "automatic" responses -- mental activity triggered by visual cues in the environment. Experts believe that while the frontal cortex deteriorates with age, brain areas specific to automatic responses stay relatively intact.

Testing this theory, Park and Liu trained a group of 31 people over 60 to track their blood sugar several times a day using a standard testing device, much like diabetics must do although the study participants did not have diabetes.

Study participants were put into three groups -- a "deliberation" group talked over the reasons why daily blood sugar testing was a good idea; a second "rehearsal" group recited the instructions for using the testing device; while a third "imagination" group spent three minutes imagining themselves using the glucose monitor within the home or work environment.

Park and Liu then tracked blood sugar monitoring rates for the next three weeks.

"We found that if you imagined completing the desired act in great detail, you're much more likely to do it," Park said. Indeed, participants in the imagination group remembered to take their blood sugar readings at a rate 50 percent higher than participants in the other two groups.

According to Park, imagination works because it sets up visual environmental cues that trigger action.

"For example, say you know you're going to have orange juice every single day with your breakfast before you test your glucose. Suddenly, when you pick up the orange juice you go, 'Oh yeah, I need to monitor my glucose.' This is a primed, automatic response originating in a part of the brain that's more resistant to aging," she said.

Elias agreed the technique should raise compliance among patients, noting it has the advantage of being cheap and easy. "I don't think it's a very difficult thing to get patients to do," he said. "A physician could write down the instructions by hand for them to take home."

Of course, the young and middle-aged can benefit, too. Other studies suggest the technique helps dieters stick to healthy eating, assists women in remembering to go for breast exams, and increases the use of medic-alert bracelets by those who need them.

Park even uses it to help her through her workday. "Often, if I have a paper to write, I'll imagine, 'OK, you're going to get home, go up to your office, sit down, get your Diet Coke, read these articles, and then start writing.' And it works. It's so effortless, and it makes it much more likely to happen."

More information

For a wealth of information on healthy aging, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Denise Park, Ph.D., professor, psychology, and director, Center for Healthy Minds, University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign; Jeffrey W. Elias, Ph.D., health sciences administrator and chief, Cognitive Aging Program and Behavioral Social Science Research, National Institute on Aging, Bethesda, Md.; June 2004 Psychology and Aging
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