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Blackberry-Blueberry: It’s A Memory Mishap for the Middle-Aged Brain

Do you ever feel like you’re losing your mind? Not in a straight-jacket, padded-room kind of way. I mean, do you mix up words, forget names, miss appointments, drive in the car with destination unknown, and get frustrated with technology because you can’t remember how to record American Idol? It’s a wonder that I manage to do what I do everyday.

To give you an idea of what I mean, the other day I juxtaposed the words Blackberry and Bluetooth and called the headset thingy a “Blueberry.” And I was dead serious. Another example is when Jack asked me what time it was and I temporarily misinterpreted the illuminated yellow digits on the DVD player and told him it was “760 O’clock,” which obviously represents the cable television channel, not the hour of the day. My husband and children look at me like I’m from another planet. When I holler at them to help me find my sunglasses—and my Foster Grants are perched on top of my forehead—they roll their eyes at me. Not only that, I can’t tell you how many times the furnace repairman or sprinkler guy calls to tell me that he’s on his way, and I’m already half way out the door with a Diet Coke and car keys in hand to run errands. And another thing that drives me crazy is when I wander into the kitchen, open the refrigerator door, and stare blankly at the bologna and Swiss cheese because I can’t remember why I came there in the first place other than I’m always hungry. Honestly, sometimes I’m dumbfounded by my absentmindedness. Come to think of it, I forget the point of this story.

“We still have a great deal to learn about how we create and retrieve memories and how this process changes as we age,” says Joy Snider, PhD, a neurologist at Barnes Jewish Hospital specializing in the treatment of memory disorders. “Over the last 30 years (of research), some things are becoming more clear. For example, several studies have shown very mild problems in coming up with words, (while) many older adults have trouble coming up with proper names or nouns. Also, many women complain of memory changes in the time around menopause,” adds Snider, who is involved in the study of memory at the Knight Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Now I remember what I was rambling about. Forgetfulness. As we move into our 40s and 50s, mental lapses can be attributed to the physiological changes in the brain’s frontal lobes, which make it more challenging to store and retrieve information, as well as decipher the important stuff from the irrelevant chatter. In my younger days, it was much easier to block out background noise from the relevant information. In college, for instance, I could study for a history exam while watching soap operas, whereas today I barely can write a sentence with the Ellen Degeneres Show on television. My high school-aged son, on the other hand, can calculate algebra with music blaring in his ears. As we get older, the cognitive part of the brain that allows us to manipulate and prioritize information is not what it used to be. Then again, neither is my waistline.

Perhaps this scientific explanation also sheds light on why I have trouble remembering people’s names. Yesterday I was at the store shopping for chocolate Easter eggs (and I’m Jewish!), and I run into the mom of my daughter’s best friend. Of course, her name slips my mind, which causes more anxiety and activates an enzyme in the brain that impairs short-term memory in the prefrontal cortex. It’s a vicious cycle. I cover up my embarrassment by calling my friend “Hey You!” I give her a great big hug, and we make plans to meet for coffee later in the week. If I don’t immediately write down the date, time, and location of which Starbucks—since there’s one on every corner—I’m screwed.

“Our busy lifestyles may make the very mild normal age-related changes more obvious, but probably do not themselves cause memory problems. The stress, anxiety and low mood that sometimes occur can cause memory changes and can make normal age-related changes seem much worse,” explains Snider.

One obvious way to improve memory is to write down everything, but sometimes I can’t find my calendar and have to scribble on the back of a Dierbergs receipt that has chewed gum sticking to it. Another tip is to pay more attention to the task at hand. For example, when I neglect to hang my car keys on the hook as soon as I walk in the door, I’m setting myself up for trouble. The reason I constantly lose my keys is because I tuck them inside a coat pocket or toss them on the counter. Consistency is key to a healthy memory.

So where was I? I digress again. Science continues to probe how mental function begins to change when we hit middle age. Basically, the cognitive part of the brain that allows us to manipulate and prioritize information is not what it used to be. Then again, neither is my waistline. Didn’t I say that already? Cognitive neuroscientists believe that the changes in genes that affect learning and mental function could explain why it gets tougher to remember things spontaneously as we get older. Plus, so many moms juggle work and family, which is bound to overload the brain.

“Some studies show that older adults have more difficulty switching rapidly between tasks; people often experience this as having more trouble multi-tasking. The ‘reaction time’ may slow down a little in older adults, but memory overall remains accurate,” says Snider, whose research also involves the detection of the very first signs of memory loss, the development of tests to detect changes in the brain even before memory problems start, and the discovery of better treatments for those who have memory disorders.

Think about it. We have so much more to remember to get through an ordinary day, beginning with the secret numerical code to unlock the house burglar alarm. Is it the year of my birthday or the last four digits of my phone number? I have as much chance of remembering that as the number on my dog’s rabies vaccination tag. My frustration worsens as I fight with the ATM to uncover my PIN number, then I rack my brain to come up with the mysterious password for depositing money in my kid’s school lunch accounts. It goes on and on. I feel trapped in my own world.

Fortunately, just because we fail to memorize phone numbers doesn’t mean we are more susceptible to Alzheimer’s.

“The important things are to stay healthy and active and change what we can change to reduce risk of memory problems,” advises Snider. “For example, smoking, high cholesterol, and obesity increase the risk of heart attack, stroke and memory problems. Mental health is important too. Many studies have shown that people who are mentally, physically, and socially active in middle age are less likely to develop memory problems when they get older, so exercise your body and brain! This includes leisure activities too.”

On that note, I’m headed outside for a stroll with my dog, per doctor’s orders. As long as I can find my way back home.