Feature Archive

Boost Your Memory

You're never too old.

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

For as long as house designer Mary Dulude can remember, she's been forgetful. Getting organized was as elusive as nailing Jell-O to a bulletin board.

She would arrive for a client meeting without the necessary paperwork. Walk away from a restaurant oblivious that she'd left her purse dangling over her chair. Lock herself out of the house not once, not twice, but five consecutive times.

Then there were those dreaded trips to the supermarket. She'd either neglect to make a list or lose it, and frantically roam the aisles unable to recall what she needed.

"My memory problems tended to revolve around errands," says Dulude, 57. "I felt just like those pictures you see after an airline crash -- I was treading water in the ocean, and all the things I needed to remember were like debris floating around me."

Then Dulude encountered Memory 101, a service at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School. There, researchers custom-make solutions to maximize memory for people of all ages. Their key tool? An 8-by-10 memory notebook in which clients can carefully write everything they need to do each day, the amount of time it will take, and even post pictures and details about friends and grandchildren.

The seemingly simple technique has attracted some big-time attention -- it was featured in the summer 2000 issue of the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. And while there's no proof yet that memory notebooks help everybody, studies have shown they can relieve forgetfulness in patients recovering from severe head injuries.

"We were seeing people who had memory deficits and feelings of incompetence, and we had nobody to refer them to, no way of really helping them," said clinical neuropsychologist Cheryl Weinstein, PhD, who helped develop the program several years ago.

Since then, the program has worked with patients who have learning disorders, head injuries, dementia, bipolar disorder, or the garden-variety absentmindedness that often comes with older age. Its potential benefits are huge: Some 80% of people older than 35 complain they have lost some of their ability to remember things and to concentrate, according to a 1997 survey by the company Bruskin/Goldring Research. Given that the average American leads a life more frenetic than a pinball game, both the program's directors and its patients agree that Memory 101's techniques could be helpful to virtually everyone.

"Have you noticed that our society expects the woman of the family to be the glue that holds everyone's schedule together?" asks Dulude, a mother of two who was just diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. "I was extremely bad at that. I needed some glue just to hold myself together!"

To begin, Memory 101 specialists do an exhaustive workup and interview -- even collecting old school records if possible -- and administer a battery of tests to pinpoint where memory function jumps the tracks. Deep within our brains, memories are sorted in a section of the brain called the hippocampus, which acts as a gatekeeper, deciding whether data is significant enough to pass into long-term memory. Important memories are filed away in the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the brain where a vine-like thicket of billions of nerve cells communicate via electrical and chemical impulses to retain information. Less important thoughts -- a chore you have to do today but will never think of again -- are filed into working memory, used, and then jettisoned.

Researchers believe that sometimes memories fail because the information never gets properly encoded by the hippocampus. Sometimes memories aren't filed properly. And sometimes the breakdown comes when the patient tries to retrieve the memory. When Memory 101 specialists nail down the problem, they have determined whether the patient suffers a true "memory disorder" -- an impairment such as that caused by Alzheimer's -- or a "memory complaint" such as forgetfulness, caused by a disorganized life.

Next, the prescribed remedy: Repeat and write it down. Memory 101's recommendations spring from a foundation of research (done at Harvard, Brown, the University of California at Los Angeles, and elsewhere) showing that repetition, reinforced by writing information down, is critical to a robust recall. For instance, a study in the July 1998 issue of Nature Neuroscience reported that teaching a skill repetitively strengthens horizontal connections in the brain's cortex, where the circuitry of long-term memory operates. Another study in the November 1999 issue of the Journal of Gerontology found that note-taking and repetition boost memory.