Memory is a function of the brain that involves processing information that you have seen, heard, smelled, touched or tasted and keeping that information for a period of time. There are many kinds of memory, including:
• Short-term memory, also called your working memory, which lasts from a few seconds to a minute. When you are trying to remember the name of someone you have just met or a phone number that you’ve been told a few seconds ago, you are using your short-term memory. This is a quick recall of bits of information for a short period of time.
• Long-term memory lasts for a minute or so to weeks or even years. Your long-term memory helps you remember information about different things that you learned previously such as what the words are to a song, how to play soccer or what you had for lunch yesterday. For long term memory, you draw on information and skills stored in your brain.
• Visual memory is the ability to remember what you have seen.
• Auditory memory is the ability to remember what you have heard.
Many people experience changes in their memory as they age. However, the amount of change varies in each individual. There are many ways to help prevent or reduce memory loss. Learning a new language, learning how to play an instrument or doing crossword puzzles helps keep your brain active and could help you remember things because you are “exercising” your brain. There are also various techniques that you can try which involve converting information into a format that is easy to remember and using retrieval cues to recall the information as needed. The usefulness of these techniques, called mnemonics, vary from person to person.
• Spelling Mnemonic – Make a catchy phrase using the letters of a word you are trying to remember. The phrase “A Rat In The House May Eat The Ice Cream” can help you remember how to spell the word “arithmetic.”
• Visualization - When you have to remember something, “see” it in your mind by creating a mental image. The more unusual the image, the more likely you are to remember it. For example, if you meet someone named “Sherry” who has 10 grandchildren, visualize her holding a glass of sherry with 10 cherries in it.
• Chunking - This technique is generally used when remembering numbers, although it can be used for remembering other things as well. Chunking involves regrouping the items into “chunks.” For example, to remember the number 85361995, break the number down into smaller chunks of numbers such as 85 36 1995. This way, you remember three larger “chunks” of numbers instead of 8 individual numbers. It is based on the idea that short-term memory is limited in the number of things that can be remembered. A common rule is that a person can remember 7 (plus or minus 2) “items” in short-term memory. Local phone numbers have 7 digits, which is the average amount of numbers that a person can remember at one time.
• Acrostics - An acrostic is a phrase or series of letters that uses the first letter of each word in a sentence or phrase to create a new sentence or phrase. Here are some common examples:
♦ My Very Excellent Mom Just Served Us Nine Pizzas - This phrase represents the order of planets from the Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto
♦ “Roy G. Biv” is a fictitious name that helps people remember the order of the colors in a rainbow. R=red, O=orange, Y=yellow, G=green, B=blue, I=indigo, V=violet
♦ Every Good Boy Does Fine – In music, EGBDF are the treble clef notes from the bottom line to the top line. To remember the notes in the spaces between the lines, think of FACE, which is the order of the notes from the bottom up.
• Acronyms – Use each first letter from a group of words to form a new word. This is particularly useful when remembering words in a specified order. Common acronyms include, SCUBA (Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) and LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Another example is HOMES, which stands for the names of the Great Lakes - Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior.
Although acronyms can be useful memory aids, they do have some disadvantages. Acronyms do not help in comprehension or understanding, they can be difficult to form because not all list of words work with this technique and they can be forgotten if you don’t repeat it often and commit it to your memory.
• Rhymes, Songs and Alliterations - Adding a familiar rhythm, repetition, melody, and rhyme can help you remember something. For example, many children learn the letters of the alphabet to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” This technique is useful for helping you to remember names, especially when you can associate something with a person’s name. For example, if Shirley has curly hair, you can remember “Shirley is curly” or “cheerful Charles” for someone named Charles who is always happy.
Any technique that helps you store and retrieve information will make your memory stronger – it’s like exercising a muscle. If you combine several different strategies, you’ll create even stronger links in your brain for each memory. And while you’re doing that, limit or reduce noise, distractions and interruptions because they interfere with your ability to pay attention and learn.
Many things other than aging can cause memory problems such as depression, illnesses, dementia (severe problems with memory and thinking such as Alzheimer’s Disease) and side effects from medications, strokes, a head injury and alcoholism.
A memory problem is serious when it affects a family member’s or your activities of daily living, which includes getting dressed, bathing, eating and personal hygiene and grooming. If this happens, consult a physician for more information and advice.