18 November 2003

Have you ever forgotten where you put your keys or your glasses, or where you parked the car? Do you meet acquaintances and can`t remember their names?

If you have, you are in good company, according to UQ academic Associate Professor Janet Wiles. She is co-author of a new book on improving memory for people of all ages.

“Contrary to popular myth, minor memory lapses are a normal part of life,” Dr Wiles said. "The majority of older people don’t get dementia. The occasional lapse, such as mislaying keys, is not a symptom of dementia. Forgetting what a key is for is more serious. Blocking the memory of names occurs at all ages — usually once a week for younger people, and twice a week for older people. It is normal to momentarily forget a name, but not to forget who the person is.

“The good news is that people can use strategies at any age to overcome forgetfulness. The best strategies are simple and easy to use, like training yourself to put your keys on a hook at home, using diaries and reminders for appointments and spending an extra few seconds to check the location of the car in the car park when shopping.

“There are four factors for a healthy memory. Surprisingly, the best thing people can do to improve their memory is regular physical exercise which gets blood flowing to the neurons. Doing any exercise three times a week for about 20 minutes is beneficial, for example walking 1.6km or more. The other factors include mental exercise, antioxidants, and a supportive social environment.”

Dr Wiles and her mother Mrs Judith Wiles have written The Memory Book (ABC Books, $24.95), based on the responses and concerns of 275 members aged 50+ surveyed from the University of the Third Age (U3A). The majority of respondents were aged in their 70s.

“The book grew out of an email discussion I had with Judith about memory and memory changes and led to the survey where we asked people what things they forgot, and how they dealt with lapses,” Dr Wiles said.

“Memory is a combination of encoding information, storing it and recalling it. It’s a bit like a library. The books need to be securely put on the shelf, stored there over time, and found at just the right moments when we need them. The brain takes longer to encode and recall information as we age, but once securely stored, we can remember just as well.

“Strategies that appear to work well are to put your keys or glasses in the same place. When parking a car, take a moment to look back to get multiple landmarks, such as the number and colour of the car park floor, and the direction to the lift.

“The reason it is often hard to recall names is that names are not descriptive but they are labels and this information is stored in a different part of the brain. It often helps to relive some memories in which you have last met acquaintances, or to discuss their names with a partner. This will help make the information more accessible if you are likely to meet the acquaintances again. If the name doesn’t resolve itself in the first minute or so, don’t dwell on it.”

Dr Wiles said semantic memory — the knowledge of the world — actually increased throughout life, with more and more connections between neurons as people exercise both mentally and physically. The increase in connections between neurons appears to compensate in part for the loss of neurons which happens form from birth onwards. Some things so became harder to remember as people became older.

Dr Janet Wiles is a cognitive scientist whose research centres on how the brain works. She is also co-director of the Centre for Research in Language Processing and Linguistics.

Judith Wiles received her Bachelor of Arts from Macquarie University as a mature age student, majoring in Behavioural Science and Education.

Media: The Memory Book will be launched at the University of Queensland’s St. Lucia Bookshop on Wednesday 26th November 2003 at 12 noon.

Further information, telephone 07 3365 2902 email: j.wiles@itee.uq.edu.au or visit: www.thememorybook.org