Forgetting the Little Things
Memory problems can happen to anyone: forgetting what they went upstairs for; missing an anniversary or birthday; needing someone to repeat what they said only a little while before. Some degree of forgetfulness is perfectly normal, but it can become a concern if frequent, especially as a person gets older. MemTrax have developed a game which allows individuals to test themselves and track their memory performance. It was scientifically developed over ten years in partnership with Stanford Medicine, for Medicare’s Annual Wellness Visit, and can help to identify memory and learning problems.
An increase in forgetfulness is not necessarily a problem. The brain is a busy organ, with a vast array of different stimuli and information to sort, store, and prioritize. This prioritizing is what sometimes leads to the less important details getting lost: where the reading glasses are is not as crucial as remembering to pick the children up from school. As people live busy lives, it’s not surprising that sometimes details slip between the cracks.
Memory and Stress
A 2012 study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked at individual neurons in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which deals with working memory, to see how they performed under the influence of distraction. As rats ran around a maze designed to test this area of the brain, scientists played them white noise. It was enough of a disruption to reduce a 90 percent success rate into 65 percent. Instead of retaining key information, the rats’ neurons frantically reacted to other distractions in the room. According to the University, the same impairment is seen in monkeys and humans.
Forgetfulness is especially a concern as people get older. Another study, this time by the University of Edinburgh in 2011, looked specifically at age-related memory disorders and stress. Specifically, the study investigated the effects of the stress hormone cortisol on older brains. While cortisol aids memory in small amounts, once levels are too high it activates a receptor in the brain which is bad for memory. While this may be a part of the brain’s natural filtering process, over a prolonged period it interferes with the processes involved in everyday memory storage. Aged mice with high levels of cortisol were found to be less able to navigate a maze than those without. When the receptor affected by cortisol was blocked, the problem was reversed. This research has led the researchers to look into ways of blocking the production of stress hormones, with a possible impact on future treatments for age-related memory decline.
When is Memory Loss a Problem?
According to the FDA, the best way to tell if memory loss is a problem is when it starts interfering with everyday life: “If memory loss prevents someone from doing activities that they had no trouble handling before—like balancing a checkbook, keeping up with personal hygiene, or driving around—that should be checked.” For example, repeatedly forgetting appointments, or asking the same question several times in a conversation, are causes for concern. This sort of memory loss, especially if it gets worse over time, should prompt a visit to a doctor.
A doctor will take a medical history and run physical and neurological tests to rule out any other causes, such as medication, infection, or nutritional deficiency. They will also ask questions to test the mental ability of the patient. It is this type of testing that the MemTrax game is based on, specifically to pick out the kind of memory problems associated with aging such as dementia, Mild Cognitive Impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease. Reaction times are tested, as well as the answers that are given, and it can be taken multiple times to show any changes to the potential problem. There are also different levels of difficulty.
Preventing Memory Loss
There are a number of ways to protect against memory loss. A healthy lifestyle, for example not smoking, taking regular exercise, and eating healthily, is known to have an impact – regardless of age. In addition, keeping the mind active with reading, writing, and games such as chess, can have a protective effect against later age-related problems with memory. Neuropsychologist Robert Wilson says that “An intellectually stimulating lifestyle helps to contribute to cognitive reserve and allows you to tolerate these age-related brain pathologies better than someone who has had a less cognitively active lifestyle”.
In this respect memory-testing games, like MemTrax and those found as smart phone and tablet applications, may themselves play a part in defending the memory. Games are designed to be enjoyable as well as mentally stimulating, and taking pleasure in intellectual activity is an important part of its benefit. As resources turn towards the needs of an aging population, MemTrax may in the future allow games to play an important role in the detection and prevention of age-related memory loss.
Written by: Lisa Barker