SHORT-TERM MEMORY LOSS


Yes, that's what I call it. Some people, in fact it's the modern thing, call it Alzheimer's. Not good. It sounds foreign, darkly mysterious, and could cover a multitude of sins. No. 'Short-term Memory Loss' is what we always called it before the moderns got hold of it, and 'Short-term Memory Loss' tells it like it is, in plain English that's instantly understandable. And by calling it what it actually is, well, it sounds a lot less forbidding. I mean, we all forget things from time to time. In fact if the truth be known, all too often. And that goes for all ages, young and old.

So now that we've laid the good Doktor Alzheimer to rest, or rather put him back in the Medical Encyclopedia where he belongs, let's look at 'Short-term Memory Loss' in old age, when it can become more than just an occasional nuisance, turning into dysfunctionality for the victim, and seriously tiresome for friends and relatives.

The importance of calling a spade a spade, that is, using a descriptional, totally meaningful name, is that 'Short-term Memory Loss' actually means something. And that 'something' is worth thinking about. Especially the 'short-term' bit.

Father lived to 101, and up to 99 had a great memory. It was in his last couple of years that he began to suffer short-term memory loss. We're English, and as with most of our race, we were born with a sense of humour. First, importantly, we all accepted Dad's memory loss, and didn't chide him if he repeated a favourite story for the umpteenth time. Acceptance is important. Dad accepted it too. 'Ask me what I did thirty years ago and I'll tell you, no problem. But don't ask me what I did thirty minutes ago!' In fact, that's the key to understanding short-term memory loss - it's just exactly that: short-term.

So why can people remember the long-gone past, but not the immediate past?

Now I have to digress, and beg the reader's indulgence.

Many years ago, when the writer and brother were in the full bloom of youth (a bit of poetic licence there, but why not), we lived in a house built between 1780 and 1810. It had a large ballroom, 35ft long by 17ft wide, almost two floors high, with wonderful high windows looking down the garden. We were just inside the Green Belt surrounding London, and 30 minutes from the Capital. We had a recording company, producing classical records (those flat black 12inch round things - remember?). Of course, the Big Room as the family unimaginatively called it, was perfect as a recording studio. The artists quite liked coming out to us, as a change from stuffy, no-windows studios, and we always treated them to a lunch buffet in the garden.

So we made recordings. We used a Teac recorder. It looked like this.

See the word TEAC? Well under that capping there are two 'heads', one for recording, the other for playback. Press the 'record' button. As the tape passes across the heads, from the left spool containing blank tape, to the right spool, the first 'head' puts sound onto the tape. If you've already done some recording and want to hear how it sounds, you re-wind the tape then press the 'playback' button and you'll hear what you just recorded, courtesy of the 'playback' head.

An understanding of this process is vital to an understanding of short-term memory loss.

Why can Father remember what he was doing thirty years ago?

Simple. His PLAYBACK head is working perfectly. The stuff's in the brain, in the memory, it's 'on the tape'. So play it back, Sam. No problem.

But why can't Father recall, remember, playback what he was doing thirty minutes ago?

The playback head is working, we know that because he's playing his old memories from thirty years back.

So it has to be the RECORD head that isn't working. You're sitting in the car, enjoying a ride through the countryside. You're looking around, enjoying the passing scenery, but you're NOT RECORDING IT.

Your musicians are all playing, a soprano is singing her heart out, but you forgot to press the RECORD button so again, you're not recording it. And...well... embarrassment!

Same with Father. He's enjoying the scenery yes, but he's not recording it. Again, embarrassment, because when you get back home and grand-daughter asks 'did you have a nice trip Gramps? So where did you go?' and Gramps can't actually remember where he went or what he saw. Later in the day he probably won't even remember he went out in the car this morning.

Why? Because his RECORD head wasn't recording.

So now we get to the nub, the heart of the matter. It's the RECORD head. Probably needs cleaning. But since you can't clean the RECORD head in your brain, you'll just have to shout louder.

'Would you mind playing louder, chaps, our tape recording head is a little weak.' Hardly confidence-inspiring for the msicians!

Or... if you're deaf and the battery in your hearing aid's gone flat, you'll just have to ask people to 'speak up a bit'.

Similarly, if the RECORD head in your tape-recorder brain is weak, that demands a different approach. It means, in effect, much greater focus, much greater concentration on the MOMENT, to make sure that what you're doing, seeing and experiencing RIGHT NOW is firmly recorded.

Tiresome, probably, but if you focus and concentrate, you'll get used to it.

OK, you're in the car trolling through the countryside. PAY ATTENTION. Talk to your companions, commenting on the passing scene, or, if that becomes a bore, talk to yourself (preferably without moving your lips!).

What am I seeing right now?

"We're driving along a pleasant country lane which I haven't been down before. The grass has been left uncut according to the new Council policy. I see some flowers, blue cornflowers I think." RECORD THAT! Blue cornflowers. "Now we're turning into the main road. A lot of traffic. Everyone driving fast."

Check back. What were the flowers you saw?

"Ah, we're going to the shopping mall. Don't care for it much... except for the gardening section, all the scents of the plants..." Remember remember remember. Record record record.

All of that running mental commentary should have been impressed on the memory. If it wasn't, then you didn't shout loudly enough. Eyes open, running commentary to yourself, remember remember remember. Tiresome yes, but take a lesson from your grandson, who jogs two miles before breakfast. That's exercise, no different from what you're doing with your memory. Both demand focus, concentration, determination, persistence.

Keep at it!


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