31 March 2010

Having trouble remembering things?

Don’t stress, according to the UQ co-author of the new edition of The Memory Book, a guide to everyday habits for a healthy memory.

“Most people fear they might be getting dementia if they forget names, or where they left their keys,” Professor Janet Wiles said.

“These are just signs of normal ageing.

“On the other hand, if people forget who a family member is, or what keys are for, that could indicate a potential health issue.”

Professor Wiles said there had been an “overwhelming” response to the first edition of The Memory Book in 2003, which reported the news that the brain can make new brain cells, and more connections between cells, even in older brains.

The book has been updated in 2010 to highlight amazing advances in memory research. In the past five years alone, tens of thousands of studies have been published on memory.

Professor Wiles said there was a growing appreciation that much of what happens in our brains was the result of lifestyle choices that were within people’s own control.

“Brain fitness matters, both mentally and physically,” she said.

“The most effective thing we can do for memory is physical exercise. When you know that exercise is part of the process of making new brain cells, you become much more motivated to get some aerobic exercise each day. Every little bit of exercise that raises a puff will help to blow the fog away.”

Other factors for improving memory included mental exercise, brain-enriching foods, valuing sleep more, and a supportive social environment.

Professor Wiles and her mother Mrs Judith Wiles co-wrote the original edition of The Memory Book (ABC Books, $27.99), 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.

“The good news is that people can use strategies at any age to manage memory lapses. 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.

“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. “

The Memory Book if full of tips including: the differences between normal ageing and dementia; the best diets for promoting a good memory; whether doing a crossword or going for a 20-minute walk is better for your memory; why maintaining an active social life is important to a healthy memory; and tricks for remembering people’s names in social situations.

Professor Janet Wiles is a cognitive scientist and Director of the Complex and Intelligent Systems Group in the UQ School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering. She directs a multi-disciplinary project on Thinking Systems, which investigates navigation in humans, other animals (such as bees) and robots.

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

Media: Further information, telephone 07 3365 2902 email: j.wiles@itee.uq.edu.au or Jan King 0413 601 248