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Protecting long- and short-term memories

March 14, 2024 | Heather Shannon
older african american couple dancing in a well-lit room with plants at home having fun and connecting to protect  memory
A daily routine that incorporates time for fun and connection can help one manage short-term memory issues.

Memory loss is a distressing aspect of the aging process. Can what was lost come back?

It depends, says Hayley Kristinsson, PsyD, a neuropsychologist at UCI Health Memory Disorders Services who specializes in memory loss.

“Determining whether memories are recoverable really depends on the cause of the memory loss combined with the type of memory impairment.”

Sometimes the cause is temporary, in the case of a concussion or temporary amnesia as a result of a psychiatric disorder or extreme stress.

If the cause is a type of dementia, however, the memories are lost forever.

How memories work

Memories are formed in three stages:

  • Encoding
  • Storage
  • Retrieval

Memories that aren’t encoded properly never move into storage for later use or retrieval.

“Similarly, if there is a storage problem, as with Alzheimer’s disease, then a memory cannot be retrieved because it was never stored,” she says.

Long-term memories, Kristinsson says, are the last to go in neurodegenerative conditions.

“Autobiographical information and details about childhood and young adulthood are often retained until very late in the disease process.”

Short-term memory often declines first in aging, whether or not it’s related to dementia.

The goal in caring for people with memory disorders and dementia, Kristinsson says, is to prevent or slow further decline rather than recovering what’s been lost.

Managing short-term memory issues

“If you are having short-term memory difficulties, it is important to engage in compensatory strategies,” she says.

Among her suggestions:

Have a consistent daily routine

Create a routine that includes:

  • A consistent sleep-wake schedule
  • Light exercise
  • Personal hygiene
  • Household maintenance
  • Work-related activities, if applicable
  • Time for enjoyable activities

“Difficult or cognitively taxing activities should be completed at the beginning of the day when fatigue is low and attention is at an optimal level,” Kristinsson suggests. “Impaired attention can impact encoding of new material, causing short-term memory difficulties.”

She also recommends dividing large projects into smaller tasks and taking a break when engaged for a lengthy period.

Use repetition when learning new information

“New information should be contextualized through the use of mnemonics, acronyms or multimodal processing,” Kristinsson says.

This could include using verbal cues to help remember visual information and using visualization when learning verbal information.

To ensure long-term retention, rehearse new information after several minutes, several hours, the next day, then every few days.

Use cues and reminders as much as necessary

Kristinsson says visual cues can be helpful to keep track of completed tasks and outstanding items on your to-do lists.

She recommends brightly colored rubber bands, bracelets, cell phone alarms or strategically placed sticky notes to assist with recall.

Preventing or slowing further memory loss

“Inadequate sleep, alcohol abuse, depression, anxiety and a sedentary lifestyle can all have an adverse impact on memory performance,” Kristinsson cautions.

Exercise. Regular physical activity isn’t just good for the heart; research has shown that moderate-intensity exercise is beneficial for enhancing memory and processing.

Social activity. Friends are also good for your brain. Studies have shown that people who are socially isolated or experiencing loneliness have more negative changes in brain health over time, she says.

Sleep. Slumbering well has been shown through research to reduce the risk of dementia. Seven to eight hours a night is the sweet spot, she says. If you struggle with falling or staying asleep, a sleep specialist can help.

Puzzles. Much like regular physical activity is essential for the body, the brain needs exercise, too. Brain games haven’t been proven to prevent dementia, but Kristinsson says they can be used to learn strategies for coping with memory loss.

“The most important thing is to find something that challenges you to think in new ways while providing enjoyment,” she says. “Activities that are cognitively stimulating are fun, engaging, challenging, and novel experiences."

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