Harvard Men's Health Watch

How to get more from your memory

Don't get frustrated by forgetfulness. Use these simple tricks and tips
to boost your ability to learn and remember.

Do you often find yourself marching around the house in a huff, searching for misplaced car keys or eyeglasses? Does the name of someone you just met at a party dangle at the tip of your tongue as you try to remember it?

Such lapses are irritating and may spark anxiety, but do not necessarily mean something is wrong. "There is some normal memory loss with aging," says Dr. Anne Fabiny, chief of geriatrics at Cambridge Health
Alliance and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "Forgetting a person's name is an inconvenience and
an annoyance, but it doesn't impair your ability to go to a party, navigate socially, and enjoy yourself."

But you're not at the mercy of forgetfulness. You can get more from your memory by acknowledging age-related changes and learning how to work around them.

Probably harmless forgetfulness

Consider talking to your doctor

You forget the name of a person you recently met for the first time.

You struggle to remember the name of a family member, and it's not the first time.

You forget to call a new acquaintance about going to lunch

You forget about a monthly lunch with old friends that you have been going to for years.

You forget the street address of your doctor, but find the office anyway.

Driving to a familiar location, you become disoriented, can't figure out where to go, and drive around lost.

You ask someone the same question you asked yesterday.

You ask the same question several times on the same day, and don't realize it.

You joke about your own forgetfulness to other people.

Your spouse expresses concern about your memory slips and suggests you talk to a doctor.

You blank out on the name of your new medication and have to check the label.

Even when you write things down, you have trouble remembering to take the right medications at the right time.

Aging and forgetfulness

As we grow older, the ability to learn new information and recall it declines somewhat. Most people notice it around age 50. One reason for the change is that the rate at which the brain processes information slows down a bit starting in middle age. "You just can't pull things out of your memory the way you used to at the same speed," Dr. Fabiny says.

Another possible memory spoiler is medication. Though it is uncommon overall, medications can impair memory. Top offenders include anti-anxiety drugs (tranquilizers) and sedating medications.

A lack of restful sleep can also make you more forgetful. "As you get older, you can't function cognitively the way that you used to with less sleep," Dr. Fabiny says.

Forgetfulness can be a serious issue if it's starting to interfere with daily tasks and routines, such as managing your healthcare, finances, or home life. If you have concerns, ask your doctor if memory testing is indicated.

But if you are well rested and functioning fine, but increasingly forgetful, try these essential tricks and tips to get more from your memory.

Follow a routine: Leave your wallet, keys, mobile phone, glasses, etc., in the same place every day. This makes it a "no brainer" to remember where your belongings are.

Take time: Slow down and pay attention when learning new things. Give the brain's memory system the time it needs to get the job done.

Do one thing at a time: Multitasking and absentmindedness often go together. If you take on too many mental tasks at once, it overwhelms your memory.

Rehearse names: In conversation, say a person's name at least once or twice before you part, as in, "It's been nice talking to you, Tom." Or silently repeat the name in your head while looking into the person's eyes.

Learn memorization tricks: Associate a person's name with a physical feature. For example, "Jim Brown has brown eyes." Or link it to a vivid image: Imagine Bob bobbing out in the middle of the ocean. Or invent a funny rhyme with the name—the stranger, the better.

Be a better listener: In conversation, really focus on what you are hearing. Use active listening techniques: "So, if I hear you right, what you are saying is..."

Avoid distractions: Noisy or activity-filled environments, like busy public buildings, make it more difficult for a person to understand and take in information. Don't have important conversations, listen to podcasts or the radio, or read in a noisy, distracting environment.

Circle back: Learning in stages works better than cramming. When learning new information, start with a leisurely skim, then circle back the next day and study the material again closely while jotting down a few notes.

Make a note of it: Write things down in a small pocket notebook instead of assuming that you will remember them later. The act of writing the information down burns the memory deeper into your brain. Pocket audio recorders are also a great way to take notes without having to fish for reading glasses.

Use a digital brain: Transfer some of the demand on your memory to a "digital brain." The calendar and reminder tools in smartphones or tablets can take on some of the responsibility for the mundane memory tasks that forgetfulness affects.

Create memory cues: Use an object, place, or event to remind you to do something else. The classic example of this memory trick is to put your prescriptions next to your toothbrush. That will remind you to take evening drugs when you brush your teeth before bed and also your morning prescriptions when brushing in the morning.

Do statin drugs impair memory?

For several years, the FDA has received reports of people experiencing memory impairment, confusion, and "fuzzy headedness" while taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs. In rare cases, people taking a statin have reported the inability to remember anything that happened for the last several hours to a couple of days. The symptoms occurred any time from a day to years after taking the statin, and the FDA did not find links between memory loss and any particular statin drug, the dose, the user's age, or other medications taken.

The FDA decided in February 2012 to require drug makers to add information to statin labels about mental side effects. In doing so, the agency did not assert that statins caused the side effects—just that the 21 million Americans taking the medications ought to be aware of the reports.

How does it affect you? Research has not yet shown that taking a statin drug definitely affects the mind in harmful ways. In fact, some clinical trials for statin drugs have included checks on mental or "cognitive" function and have found no effect.

The mental symptoms also appear to be rare. "In twenty-five plus years of giving statins to patients, I can only recall two who told me that they noted a clear loss in memory performance on the drugs," says Dr. Mason Freeman, the founding director of the lipid clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

The reported memory and mental effects appear to be reversible. As the FDA noted in a "consumer update" about the label change: "In general, the symptoms were not serious and were reversible within a few weeks after the patient stopped using the statin."

The reports have caused concern among statin users over what may actually be harmless memory slips, says Dr. William Kormos, editor in chief of Harvard Men's Health Watch. "It's unlikely that forgetting a name is because of a statin," Dr. Kormos says. "The reports describe pretty dramatic memory changes."

The uncertain mental side effects of statins must be weighed against their proven benefits. For people with established heart disease, statins save lives.

If you do notice sudden or unusual changes in your thinking or memory, tell your doctor about it. But don't suddenly stop taking your statin without good cause. The evidence for the benefit is on a lot firmer ground than the reported cognitive side effects.