The networking event is bigger than you expected. You’re suddenly standing in a room full of strangers, most of whom will want to introduce themselves to you. And you’re awful at remembering names.
Or so you think. The truth, says Cynthia Green, a staff psychologist at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center in New York, consultant, and author, is not that you can’t remember anyone’s name, it’s that you’re not really acquiring it in the first place.
Green will be the keynote speaker at the Princeton Senior Resource Center’s free “Healthy Brain, Healthy Memory” conference on Saturday, October 24, at 8:30 a.m. at the center, 45 Stockton Street. Call 609-924-7108 or visit http://princetonsenior.org.
The trouble with learning new information, especially names, says Green, is that it becomes “a pop quiz for your brain.” Information comes at you unexpectedly and suddenly, is said quickly, and is offered to you while any number of other things are going on around you. In this environment, she says, the information, even when it’s as simple as a name, is not getting through. When it comes time to recall the information, it just isn’t there.
A good trick? Assign the person’s name to something. “You can say, ‘Mort — like my friend’s father,’ or ‘Mort, like Morton’s Salt,’” Green says. “Or you can make up a little story — ‘Mort likes salt.’ It sounds silly, but it actually works really well.”
One of the most common problems Green finds in business circles is the recall of names, she says. She often lectures on the topic for companies that want to keep their first-name-basis style of business working during periods of growth. She cites an aviation company for which she consulted that during the 1990s grew fourfold in only a few years. The company’s calling card was its ability to know its customers intimately, but as growth occurred, it became harder to know everyone’s name. “It’s a very common thing,” she says.
Memory loss vs. brain health. In our professional and personal lives, we all have a lot going on. We are, says Green, “pulled in a million directions all the time.”
The result is frustration and moments of forgetfulness that make us think we are losing our memories, she says. But, like learning a new name, we are more lacking in our ability to pay attention than forgetting.
As we age, our brains do change, Green says, and memory loss does happen, but the good news is that we can exercise our brains (and bodies) to keep such deterioration at bay.
Green, who grew up in North Carolina, was very close to both her grandmothers and became interested in gerontology and aging early on. One of the characteristics of people of her grandparents’ generation, and even that of her parents, is that many of those people saw dementia as an inevitable fact of getting old.
Not so, Green says. “We need to have overall brain health, the ability for our brain to be plastic in its function.” And to achieve it takes a combination of engaging our brains, bodies, and lifestyles.
Eat, drink, sleep, play. There are many puzzle books, games, and activities aimed straight at the senior set’s brains. And these are good. Puzzles keep our brains engaged, problem solving helps us reason, and game that pit us against a ticking clock — say, Yahoo’s Text Twist, which asks you to descramble words while time stomps mercilessly toward zero — activate exactly the areas that we tend to let lapse as we age.
It is a curious, not fully understood fact that as we age, we shy away from games and activities that involve a timer, Green says. The skills those games work, however — decision making, speed of recognition, coordination — are exactly the ones we need to engage the older we get. As mental exercise goes, these are among the best types of activities to keep our brains fresh and vibrant.
But brain health is more than just an ability to think through a challenge. Overall brain health requires some cross training, namely physical exercise. A growing body of research suggests that it is exercise rather than puzzles that will keep our brains healthy and vibrant. But the brain needs both, Green says.
What needs understanding is the difference between brain health and memory fitness. “I could go out and run every day, and that’s great for overall brain health,” she says. But a healthy brain does not always mean peak memory fitness. Just as your body can get worn down from overuse, your memory fitness can suffer the consequences of sleep deprivation, too much alcohol, or too much caffeine, among other dietary factors.
Many times, Green says, what people think is a deterioration in memory turns out to be simply unfit, distracted, or otherwise engaged.
Where the heck is my car? Without a doubt, Green says, the number one problem with memory is attention. With work, kids, school, exercise regimes, family illnesses, side jobs, and so many other things cloying for our attention, our brains are simply unable to keep up.
What this translates into for people is that while they’re parking their cars and talking on a cell phone at the same time, they’re not noticing where the car is. Or where they’ve put their keys.
The trick, beyond removing as many distractions as is practical, is to organize better. “Put your keys in the same place all the time,” Green says. The action is so rote, we hardly pay attention now, only to send ourselves scrambling for the lost item later. “People who organize well are going to remember well,” she says. If you’re not thinking about where your keys are anyway, you can at least put them in the place you found them the last time you lost them.
Help is out there. Green has written three books on memory and brain health (all of which she will be signing and selling at the October 24 conference). Her first and latest are geared toward engaging the brain and strategizing to keep it running smoothly.
There also are an increasing number of software programs that not only pit us against the tyranny of the clock, but evaluate how well we’ve navigated the game’s challenges and make it ever harder for us to play it again. Websites, such as Yahoo.com or AddictingGames.com, offer free games that challenge and provoke our brains as well. And all these are good to try, Green says, so long as you don’t just sit there for six straight hours at a time. Remember to also get up and go for a walk, cut back on the junk food, and lessen your intake of caffeine and alcohol.
Green left North Carolina to study psychology in Massachusetts, with a plan on working in gerontology. She earned her bachelor’s from Smith College in 1983, then a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from New York University in 1990.
She started as an assistant with the American Jewish Committee in New York and did an internship at Beth Israel Hospital in its neurobehavior division. In 1990 she joined the faculty of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, where she serves as an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry.
Green started her own firm, Memory Arts www.memoryarts.com in Montclair in 2000, through which she does consulting, teaching, and lecturing.
The key to keeping the brain sharp and the memory taut, Green says, is to take care of your mind as well as the organ itself. Remember, dementia is not inevitable, so long as you practice some prevention.