If you feel like your memory has been slipping up recently, the pandemic may be playing a part. A lot of memory comes from context. When your days become monotonous and uneventful, the minutia tends to fade away.
“We tend to habituate and get used to situations,” said Amir-Homayoun Javadi, a senior lecturer in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the Univ. of Kent. He is also the chief executive officer of Active-Class, a learning management system. “The situation for the past two years has pushed us to not do much and not to plan.”
Our memories have fewer cues to tie themselves to without plans and activities. That’s called “encoding.” It can cause memory disruptions, trouble with attention span and cognitive decline.
“Sometimes we’re a little bit harder on ourselves. We think, ‘Oh, how did I forget this? This is something that should be so natural for me to store,’” said Neurobiologist Michael Yassa of UC Irvine. “But it turns out that something happened during encoding that made it actually impossible for you to even get this memory onboard to begin with.”
It can be hard to differentiate one day from another when you aren’t leaving the house as much, favorite restaurants are closed and social activities are canceled. Even if you know you did something, it can be hard to remember what day you did it, what day of the week you did it or who you’ve told about it. That’s not you being forgetful; that’s your brain missing the cues of how to encode information.
The good news is, there is a way of helping your memory. It’s actually following a practice meant to protect people against developing signs of Alzheimer’s. It’s called SHIELD. It’s an acronym for sleep, handle stress, interact socially, exercise, learn, diet. By getting a healthy amount of sleep, learning to manage stress without overreacting, connecting with friends, getting exercise, learning a new skill and eating a healthy diet, you can prevent the unhealthy decline of your brain. It was developed by McCance Center Co-Director Dr. Rudolph Tanzi.
We frequently talk about many of the things on that list. But, we have rarely touched on the importance of learning throughout life. Learning new skills challenges your brain to stay active. People who learn new languages show less cognitive decline as they age. But, if you have never had a gift for tongues, that’s okay. Learning a musical instrument, doing puzzles, learning to paint and even playing video games have been shown to keep you sharp. Taking a class to learn something has the side bonus of adding more social interaction to your life!
If you feel like you have been struggling with your memory, we encourage you to try out SHIELD. But, you should also speak to your doctor. You may benefit from medical intervention as well as self-care. It’s essential to clue your doctor into any changes you are experiencing, so they are aware of your medical state and know if you are showing any signs of a more serious problem.