Sunday, October 01, 2017

Remembering stuff

As we age, most of us will have some trouble remembering things. It’s often short-term things, such as, where we put our car keys. As the old saying goes, “forgetting where you put your car keys is normal; forgetting you have a car is not.” Memory can be affected by any number of things, and it can play out in unexpected ways. Like, today.

A crossword question brought all this up: What is the 19th letter of the Greek alphabet? As it happens, I once memorised the whole thing, so I began strongly, and it went something like this: “alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon… [pause] …um… [pause] …lambda, mu, nu… [pause] …um… [pause] …omicron, pi… [pause] …um… [pause] …sigma, tau, upsilon… [pause] …um… [pause] …something, something, omega.” I remembered 14 out of 24 letters, but I missed so many that I couldn’t work out with one was 19th (it’s tau, by the way). I did remember a few more, but not where they were in the list: zeta, theta, phi, chi, and psi (a complete list is in the link above).

It’s actually kind of surprising that I remembered as much as I did, because I decided to memorise the alphabet when I was a freshman in high school, more than 40 years ago. It’s fair to say that I haven’t had any real use for it in all the decades since. And yet, I remembered 14 out of 24 letters (around 58%), and in the correct order—though I left a few out. All up, I remembered 19 (nearly 80%, though with several sort of orphaned). The fact I remembered so much of something I’ve never needed over all these years seemed kind of remarkable to me, up until I remembered that most people have trouble with short-term memory (where are those car keys I put down somewhere five minutes ago?), not memories from long ago.

Indeed, it’s common to enter a room and forget why we went there, though we usually do remember, often fairly quickly. Except when we don’t.

There are many things that affect memory, including lack of sleep and medicines. Both affect me, but the second one has been a particular problem over the past year. Statins, drugs to control lipids (cholesterol) in the blood, cause memory problems for, apparently, most users. They’re not necessarily severe problems, but they can be incredibly annoying and even frightening.

For example, the other day I was at my desk and decided to test my memory. I tried to remember the colour of the front of our dishwasher, and I couldn’t remember if it was brushed metal or white. I tried to picture it, since that usually helps, and despite putting things in or taking them out of the dishwasher every single day over the past seven months, I couldn’t visualise it. This scared me. I had a sort of hunch that the front was brushed metal (it is), but I wasn’t sure, I thought I should be sure, and that was the problem. Sure, NOW I think it’s silly I was ever unsure, but at the time, I definitely was.

I think I may have been tired that day, that I may not have had enough sleep the night before—something that affects anyone’s memory, but especially mine these days. This is an ongoing issue because I also need more sleep than normal—easily nine or ten hours a night—or I feel extremely tired the next day. I’ve complained to my doctors about all this, but so far they’re only addressing the tiredness by changing drugs. I need statins, and since they all cause memory problems, this problem is unlikely to go away soon.

All of which meant I needed to create some strategies to compensate for an unreliable memory, and—when I remember to use them—this is what I do:

I always put my car keys in the same place—well, two places, actually: In a basket by the front door (preferred) or in my coat pocket if I forget to take them out of my pocket. I never put them anywhere else. Similarly, I always charge my phone in one place and my iPad in one place (different places, but I never move them). That way, if the devices aren’t with me, I know exactly where they are.

If I walk into a room and see something I need to do, I do it immediately because I know I’ll forget about it if I don’t do it right then. This is a new strategy, and imperfect because it may cause me to forget whatever it was I was on my way to doing.

Sometimes I sort of chant to myself what I’m on my way to doing. I read somewhere that speaking a thing out loud several times helps one remember it, but I seldom actually say the thing out loud. So, for example, I might repeat to myself, “get empty hangers out of the wardrobe”, and I keep repeating that to myself even if I stop to do other things first. This has sometimes helped.

I also need to keep “to do” lists, something I’ve talked about previously. The problem is still that I forget to write things down, and also forget to look at the list when I do make one. Interestingly, the most recent time I complained to my doctor about the statin-driven memory problems, she suggested keeping lists as the way of dealing with it. Gosh, why hadn’t I ever thought of that?!

The video up top is about learning, which is useful information, but the opening part talks about writing notes by hand, that it's better than using a computer. There really is abundant research that backs this up, and it’s also something I’ve personally experienced: Writing things down makes me more likely to remember it (although when I was younger I didn’t need to look at what I wrote down, where now it’s vital).

This is all a work in progress, as so many things in life are. While a little bit has improved over the years, medicine has made some things worse. More to come on this—if I remember to write about it.

No comments: