Wellness: Your Brain and Memory, Or, “Where did I leave those Car Keys?”

Ralph E. Jones

Dr. Ralph E. Jones, Special to the Star

The month of June is, among other designations, Alzheimer’s disease And Brain Awareness Month. Each year at this time I write to you about this most increasingly chronic disease, ever increasing in precedence and prevalence in our society.

Have you ever looked at someone and could not remember their name? Have you ever forgotten a word, or what you were going to say to someone? Have you ever gone into a room and then did not remember what you went in there for? Have you ever encountered a particular aroma and it reminded you of a past event?

A few years back, my wife and I went upstate to visit with our daughter and her family. On our return trip a thought of forgetting to do something kept bugging me…what did I forget? I knew I had forgotten something, but what?

Then a couple of hundred miles later, upon approaching the Valley, I remembered. I forgot our camera. How could I forget the camera? Has something like that ever happened to you? Of course it has. It is a phenomenon all humans experience called memory lapse…forgetfulness. Very frustrating to say the least.

Memory lapse occurs when our thoughts and perceptions, although immediate to our short term memory banks, do not complete their travel along our brains neural pathways and storage into our long term memory banks or something is left out of the transfer. Reasons for this?

Perhaps it was because there were other more important, overriding issues involved at the time. Perhaps we are getting up in age and our brain cells are diminishing in their capacity to translate and store data, as in my case; us aging individuals have learned and experienced so much in our life-time that our brain “memory banks” are exceedingly saturated.

There may be a myriad of reasons why encoded messages from our thoughts and perceptional organs, our senses, are not passed on in their total context to the memory section of our brain. And yet, the memories are available for recall; as in the case of remembering something at a later time.

In thinking about all of this, my mind is taken back to what I learned in my “Psych 101” university course so many years ago about memory. In its simplest terms, memory is our ability to encode, store, retain, and recall information and past experiences in our Brain. And, memory is the sum totals of what we remember, and gives us the capacity to learn and adapt from previous experiences. When memory problems become acute and chronic, however, it may be beginning signs of a brain disorder.

In my later years, when working with individuals and families with mental illness and other brain disorders, I encountered the incurable disease called Alzheimer’s which primarily affects the portions of the brain concerned with memory and cognitive functioning (but it is so much more than that). Alzheimer’s disease affects almost 10 percent of the population of senior citizens; that’s millions of individuals.

I remember providing psychological and counseling services to an individual patient and his family who were in the throes of this terrible, most debilitating disease. One afternoon, when I had to go to a grocery store, I saw the man sitting in front of the store on the sidewalk. He did not know me, nor did he know where he was or how he got there. I immediately called his family and they came and picked him up.

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease need constant, round the clock supervision, as they are so susceptible to harm. Their memory loss, decreased cognitive skills, outbursts of anger, disorientation, and wandering off are but a few symptoms of the disease.

My wife and I have many very old and dear friends and family members with Alzheimers disease. Some are in extended care facilities now, as their disease has progressed to the point that they know no one and cannot care for their daily needs. Their families and we are so saddened about them, but at terms with the fact that these individuals cannot return to their once healthy and vibrant states.

Besides having a neurological/brain disease or disorder, there are numerous other things that can cause memory problems; such as a blow on the head (many of us have been “knocked silly” during our life time). Certain medications, alcohol, illicit drugs, sleep deprivation, stress and depression, and nutritional deficiency can all lead to memory problems. Additionally, Chemotherapy produces what is known as “chemo brain,” which has proven to affect memory.

Recent studies have suggested that even “Jet Lag” can impair memory brain function; as well as spending extended time on a computer.

Although as it is said that “With aging the first thing to go is the mind,” there are many things one can do to improve memory and slow down the process of memory loss. For example, I do daily cross word puzzles which helps my memory system a lot, I read magazines and books a lot and that seems to help. I watch my nutrition and sleep, making sure I get enough of both (albeit that is most difficult for me these days). I practice relaxation techniques and avoid stressful situations as much as possible.

Although I am mostly home-bound these days with my cancer and continuous chemo therapy, I have visitations with family and friends, which I know is most important in keeping the brain active; I socialize mainly with e-mails and a social media site now days. My senior citizen friends and I often pass on humorous stories about memory lapses with aging, which is most helpful…what we lovingly call “Old Timers Disease” among ourselves. We are all aware, however, that Alzheimer’s and other dementia disease is no laughing matter.

As with ways we can slow down and impede memory loss, there are also ways that individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other brain disorders can be treated. Although brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s, are incurable; there are medications that can slow down its progression. If you have a loved one who is experiencing severe and chronic symptoms of memory loss, or other symptoms I previously described, consult your family physician. The earlier the intervention, the better.

If you have need of further information about memory loss or brain disorders, I direct you to look it up on the internet; as there is a lot of information out there. I also suggest you contact the Alzheimer’s Association for further information, most especially if you have a diagnosed loved one with the disease. I have found them to be most helpful. No family needs to go through this alone.

Next week we will take a closer look at Alzheimer’s disease; it’s possible causes and brain centers of development, stages of development, symptoms, and contemporary treatment modalities.

Take care of your memory cells and until next time, stay overall healthy my friends.