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Jane Giddan and Ellen Cole Headshot

Speed Bumps on Memory Lane

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I've been taking notes for this post on memory and cognition for women in their 70's, but as I sit down to write, I have no idea where I put those notes. I know I wrote them on the back pages of the book I just finished, but I don't know where I put the book. And to make matters worse, there were two red cups on my kitchen countertop. I filled one with juice, and the other was empty... and I couldn't remember why. My search for my notes brought me upstairs to my computer, but there, the scene was much, much worse. A few weeks ago, there was a tragedy in my book group. One of our members died suddenly, and emails flew back and forth as we shared our grief. To my horror, I referred to the deceased woman by the wrong name (the name of a book sister alive and well), and hit "send" about a minute before I recognized my mistake. And most recently, as I was talking animatedly to my daughter-in-law about her sister, I realized with a jolt that I was actually referring to her sister's daughter.

Lest one think that memory loss and brain confusion are ours alone, or belong exclusively to women in their eighth-decade, my 72-year-old husband drove home from the gym today with his iPhone on the top of his car (it arrived home safely!). A younger tennis pal told of a time when she couldn't for the life of her remember the name Barack Obama, yet she could name all nine Supreme Court justices. Nevertheless, it may be particularly frightening for us and our age-mates when we notice a brain glitch. We read everywhere that dementia is now considered epidemic. Some five million Americans have Alzheimer's or related dementia, and according to the Alzheimer's Association, that number is expected to increase to nearly 14 million by 2050. But this column is not about the unfortunate among us who will succumb to the grimness of dementia or Alzheimer's disease. It's about the rest of us who (so far!) might be called the "worried well."

We have facilitated 70 Candles conversation groups around the country for women in their 70's. Each time we ask, "How many of you think your memory loss is worse than everyone else's?" Every hand goes up. Comments we have heard include, "So many indoor mysteries -- why did I come into this room?" "Ah, the agony and the ecstasy -- the feeling of euphoria when what was lost is found." And "It's never too late to learn new things. The challenge is to remember them." We've also heard strategies for dealing in reassuring and healthy ways with failures of memory and what we're now thinking of as "befuddlement." Here are our top five:

1. Laugh at yourself. It feels good.

2. Share your foibles with your age-mates. Laugh together at the stories that are the funniest; console each other over the wincing moments. Sharing normalizes.

3. Use post-it notes and Google shamelessly.

4. A friend of Jane's suggests assigning a number immediately when memory fails. One means it's just at the tip of my tongue; give me just a second. Two means it's gone for right now, but not forever. Everyone be patient. Three means fergitaboutit, no way!

5. Don't hesitate to say, "Stop me if I told you this before" -- and be consoled that you may have told it, but they forgot it.

As we age normally, recent memory and name recall may be, as they say, "the first to go." But think of all we retain, what we do better than ever and the pressures that have fallen away with age. And brain researcher Gary Small has found that there are also areas of improvement as we age. Empathy, for example, the ability to understand the emotional point of view of another, increases as we age. We say that's a fair trade.