ST. LOUIS – Donna LaVoie pondered reasons for the fear people have about losing their memories. She sat in front of a desktop computer and a laptop. As she prepared to speak, the phone rang. She checked the call, punched some buttons, then …

The problem isn’t a loss of memory, says LaVoie, associate professor of psychology at St. Louis University. The problem is a loss of focus. People aren’t paying attention, aren’t taking the time to do one thing at a time and make the whole experience a permanent memory.

“We are on overload right now,” she says. “When things happen to us, when you look back at the time a person is engaging in an event, they’re not 100 percent focused on the event – in today’s world, especially.

“I don’t just multitask. I multitask on two computers. This multitasking thing splits up our attention.”

LaVoie teaches classes and conducts research about psychological mysteries such as memory, how it works and what’s going on when it doesn’t.

With increased attention in the past decade on the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, more people wonder if their memory lapses, such as forgetting the name of someone they just met or forgetting where they left their keys, signal impending dementia, even if it’s years away.

The answer is no, say experts.

“Distraction is not dementia,” LaVoie says. The problem is people are losing their ability to pay attention. Attention – focus – builds memory, she says.

“Good memory requires attention on the information you want to remember,” said Mark McDaniel, associate professor of psychology at Washington University. “That’s where we tend to be limited. If you can create the situation that allows you good attention on the information you want to remember, then your memory will be pretty good.”

McDaniel is co-author of “Memory Fitness: A Guide for Successful Aging” (Yale University Press, $17). The book explains what people should expect from their memories over their lifetimes.

“Some have suggested that we live in a world with so much information, that we are bombarded with so many demands – cell phones, pagers, phone calls,” McDaniel said.

People allow their attention to be compromised by the multitasking brought on by technology, by emotional turmoil and sometimes by fatigue, he says.

McDaniel muses at the attention that memory loss is getting. “As a species, we attach a lot of importance to our cognitive mental function. Not many 50-year-olds talk about why they can’t bench press as much as they did when they were 20. They can’t run as fast as they did when they were 20. But for some reason, physical decline doesn’t create this sense of panic as much as cognitive decline.

“I guess it has to do with the fact that memory is the essence of who we are. Episodic memory – it’s what keeps track of all your experiences, of your feelings, of your first kiss, of your first love affair.

“These are the memories that tell us who we are. They give our lives texture and richness and a sense of time and continuity.”

The brain is the exclusive librarian of memory. And just like any organ, it needs care and feeding to work well.

“What’s good for your heart is good for your brain,” says Dr. Dennis Q. McMannus, a neurologist at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield. “Keep the cholesterol down, exercise, eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, fish three times a week, these are all good things.”

Drinking, smoking, drugs, sedentary lifestyle, bad diets, bad moods and stress are bad for the brain.

He emphasized that marijuana, especially, is bad for teens, whose brain cells are still growing. The drug intoxicates partly by weakening the same parts of brain cells that Alzheimer’s disease attacks later in life.

LaVoie of St. Louis University adds, “The best brain food is oxygen. Physical activity is as important as mental activity. You gotta get the blood flowing to keep the oxygen moving through the system.”

She warns against brain fast food: television. TV is a double-edged sword – both edges toxic. Besides the lack of physical activity, “You’re sort of spoon-fed and led through what’s happening; you don’t have to think very hard to process TV.”

That’s especially important for children, she said: Letting someone else provide thinking and imagination is a bad habit that can follow a child through life.

“Start them early,” she says, “talking a lot, thinking a lot, keep them doing that. When they get into later years, it’s going to be a habit.”

McMannus says the key is to have an active brain.

“If you have an active brain, taking piano, trying to learn a new language, this seems to help the mind keep going,” he says. “And it seems to be that the higher education you have, the higher intelligence, the more protective that is.”

Newborns are sponges, collecting information for the three sorts of memory at a rate that dazzles scientists. At about 10 or 11 years old, their brains have more and bigger brain cells than at any time in their lives. But that doesn’t make them smart, just open to training.

By the early 20s, the growth of new brain cells is about through. By the 40s and after, brain processing slows down, but not brain power.

Granted, aging reduces brain agility just like it reduces agility in other body parts. Still, all of the experts said getting older does not reduce your ability to remember, think or learn.

“One of the main myths is that memory gets worse with age,” says neuropsychologist Douglas J. Mason, author of “The Memory Doctor,” a manual on how to maintain a healthy memory. “Your memory changes with age. You become a little slower, it takes a little longer to pull something out.”

Over a lifetime, says Mason, who practices in central Florida, the brain gets fuller, so thumbing through the file cabinets takes a little longer.

“The memory is a little like a computer. I keep putting things in my hard drive and I notice that it starts slowing down,” Mason says. “It’s the same thing with the brain. We get more and more information in there, and it’s going to slow down a bit. But we actually will become more accurate. Research shows that as we age, we’re slower, but we’re smarter.”

SELF-CLEANING BRAINS

LaVoie explains that as information piles up, the brain rearranges itself constantly. It stands to reason that what often is seen as a memory problem is actually a person’s reluctance to recognize the clutter that’s filling up the brain.

As long as you’re alive, you’re gathering information and the brain is storing it, she said. Sometimes the brain has to delete a few things to keep itself running smoothly.

“The brain is dying and regenerating all the time,” says LaVoie. “Brain cells die off constantly. The brain tries to prune to keep things operating efficiently.”

McDaniel says learning and memory happen for a lifetime in a healthy brain. “Typically, we believe the system is unlimited, that we can remember as much as we can take in,” he says. “Clutter won’t be a problem with what’s residing in the (long-term) memory, but in working memory, clutter is a problem.

“So the problem is not remembering where you put your keys. The problem is you’re thinking of two or three other things-what you’re doing at work that day, problems you might have on the job, plans for the weekend. That distraction creates an interference to attendance to where you set your keys down.”

The remedy is to concentrate on what you’re doing when you do it and not do multiple things at a time.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.