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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Memory, Something you need to work at

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 17th 2009

 "I know I wrote this blog for a reason......but I can't remember why?" 

Whenever friends and colleagues get together, we love to joke about our memory and how it seems to malfunction at this point in our lives. Here are some examples:

1. I walked into the kitchen with great determination, focus and purpose and suddenly realized that I had completely forgotten what I had intended to do or get there!

2. I looked all over the house for my cell phone and was chagrined when my wife told me I was holding it in my hand. Or, I was talking on the cell phone but had the sensation that I could not remember where I had placed it.

3. We were playing a trivia game with a group of friends and discovered, to my great dismay, that I could not remember facts that I used to easily recall.

4. I used the key to enter our apartment but it would not work. Then, I discovered that I was at the wrong apartment.

5. It seemed very dark in the office. I looked around and could not figure out why it was so dark until I realized that I had not removed my sun glasses.

These and other failures of the memory system plague people of all ages. It is just that as some of us they seem to happen with greater frequency and become the source of both jokes and a lot of anguish. Why the anguish. Those who are aging sometimes worry about the onset of dementia.

In point of fact, there is a lot that all of us, of all ages, can do to sharpen and improve our memory system and, possibly, delay or prevent to onset of Alzheimer's disease..

The Memory System, A Brief Description:

Essentially, the memory system consists of three components.


1. Sensory Memory

Sensory memory is part of a neurological screening process the weeds out lots of extraneous sensations that are picked up by the five senses and then rejected and dismissed. If this did not happen we would experience an overload of sensations from which we could make no sense, as in a photograph that has been over-exposed with multiple images on top of each other. Only the important sensations that affect sight, sound, taste, smell and touch are registered by the brain and give us a complete picture of our environment.

2. Short term memory is just what is says.

It is an aspect of memory that allows the brief storage of information for use within thirty seconds or less. For example, being given a phone number in order that a call be made immediately. Thereafter, the phone number is forgotten.

3. Long term memory is the storage and retention of information for later use, even if that means years after it is stored in the memory system.

Today, it is believed that the memory system remains intact as we age if we are healthy but the time it takes to retrieve that information takes longer. In all cases, the stimulation of the memory system is what keeps the brain active and youthful.

How to stimulate the brain and memory system:

1. Throughout life, exercise on a regular basis helps keep the body and its brain in excellent health. Even if someone who is older may not be able to run, vigorous walking is extremely helpful. The only limiting factor to this is physical health. It is best to walk instead of drive, use the staircase instead of the elevator, and swim instead of just standing in the pool. As long as your doctor deems you to be in good enough help to exercise, there is no reason not to even at advanced ages. An 80 year old neighbor of mine rides his bike on a daily basis. He rides for long distances, as he has his entire life, and looks and sounds youthful and vigorous. Exercise strengthens the heart, arteries and veins and helps to prevent stroke.

2. Intellectual stimulation is a form of exercise for the brain. There is no age limit on going to school and there are no age limits on doing such things as reading, learning a new language, learning math skills, calculous, travelling to new places and experience new things. The only harmful thing is to deprive one's self from the opportunities to learn and grow.

3. Smoking serves no useful purpose for the body and brain. In fact, the decreased lung capacity caused by smoking can reduce the brains capacity for memory storage and retrieval and, of course, cause all kinds of cancer, heart disease, hypertension and stroke.

4. Drinking in moderation, meaning no more than one or two glasses of wine and the equivalent of other drinks, can be healthful for some. However, going beyond those limitations leads to all types of health hazards, one of which it's negative impact on memory and the ability to learn.

5. All the indications continue to point towards the Mediterranean diet as being the healthiest way to eat. That is a diet that is high in green and yellow vegetables, fish oils, nuts, raisins, fresh fruits and whole grains. The idea is to maintain a low cholesterol diet with the Low Density Lipids (LDL) being kept low because they are implicated in heart disease and the High Density Lipids (HDL) high because they prevent heart disease.

6. Remaining a social life with people, be it family, friends or both, is important to physical and mental health.
An active social life in which there is involvement with other people serves to keep the brain active and alive. My grandfather did this through his involvement in the synagogue. Church involvement, group activities of all types and engaging in groups dedicated to such things as reading, sewing, cooking, playing cards and other such activities are enormously important and healthy for everyone.

7. Sleep is vitally important for everyone. It is well known and documented that sleep improves memory functioning, prevents depression, and helps maintain a well functioning body. Afternoon naps, if they are no more than 15 minutes can be refreshing and restorative. However, long naps will detract from the ability so sleep soundly at night. The same is true for caffeine intake. It is important to be aware that even "decaf" coffee has caffeine in it, as does tea and pop drinks such as the colas and other soft drinks. There are plenty of self help books on how to maintain good sleep hygiene habits and there is reading material here on Mental Help Net.

8. It is impossible to prevent stress in life. However, it is possible to manage it through the very activities listed and discussed here. In addition, learning and using meditation and yoga are helpful ways to minimize the negative impact that stress can have.

Young or old, there is no such thing as "too young" or "too old" to make positive changes in your life and to become vital, active and alive.

Your comments are welcome and encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD




Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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