Exercise helps memory fitness

"Memory is the thing I forget with "¦"

That's a child's definition of memory. The standard dictionary definition is: "the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned or retained."

My favorite way of thinking about memory comes from Johns Hopkins University. It's "all the things you can remember and your capacity for remembering."

Our memory starts to change as early as age 30. Here's an illustration — it's taken from "Mental Fitness for Life" by Sandra Cusack and Wendy Thompson.

"Now what's the name of that woman with the curly hair who's Susan's friend? I think her name begins with R or is it B? Rooster? No that couldn't be it — Brewster? Yes, that's it. And her first name? Is it biblical — Sarah? Rebeccah? Judith? No, none of these. Elizabeth? Martha? Mary? I'm getting close. It's Mary something ... Mary Anne? Mary Elizabeth? Oh wait, it's the same as my granddaughter's — Rosemary. No, not quite. But it does have a flower in it. Ah, it's Mary Rose. Mary Rose Brewster. At last!"

This problem occurs oh-so frequently for aging adults; it's referred to as the "tip of the tongue syndrome." Has it ever happened to you? It happened to me just yesterday — twice.

If I forgot the name of Susan's curly-haired friend and I really wanted to remember it, that's more likely to occur if I focus on "pathways of association." The name of Susan's friend is stored somewhere in my memory, but it may not be where I thought it was. The process of trying to make the association means I use key words, sights, smells, sounds, tastes — any available clues. It's both exhilarating and frustrating.

But here's the deal — the process of trying to recall something you've forgotten improves your memory. Yes, really. Even if I never made the association and ultimately had to ask Susan her friend's name, I'm better off cognitively because I struggled a little in trying to make associations.

Remembering things as we age gets increasingly more difficult. Understanding what gives us the most trouble can be useful. A Stanford University study (Von Lierer, et al) ranked the memory skills that people most want to improve: 1) people's names 2) key dates and appointments 3) location of household items 4) recent and past events 5) when to take vitamins and medications and 6) important information and facts.

Consider this. Look at the areas listed in the preceding paragraph one more time. Rate your degree of difficulty in each category. Use a 1-5 scale that ranges from "seldom" to "always." For example, rating yourself as a "5" on "taking vitamins and medications" means that particular part of your daily activities is always challenging; you'll need to be really creative about finding memory aids.

I would rate myself about a "3" in "ability to recall names—" sometimes I'm great at it; other times I draw a total blank. I have a friend who's a "5." For her it has always been a significant problem. But then, she solved it completely — and quite creatively. She just decided to start calling everybody "Sweetie."

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 776-7371, Ext. 210.

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