Caring Currents

Memory Loss Is on Everybody's, Um, Mind

Last updated: Apr 15, 2008

Question mark.jpg

Hmmm, did I remember to make sure Dad took his pills?

What was I supposed to call Mom's doctor about—what's his name, anyway?

And where are my %#*@  keys?

Even as midlife caregivers worry and grieve over our parents' Alzheimer's and other dementias, there's another fret in the backs of our minds: our minds.

The '90s were dubbed "the decade of the brain" after new imaging tests opened a window to how the brain works. Geriatrician Robert Butler calls for a "Century of the Brain"  to research Alzheimer's in his new book The Longevity Revolution. But the sweeping label many boomers will connect with most is the "Bad Memory Century," as  pronounced by New York Times columnist David Brooks last week. He's not referring to our parents' memory issues, but our own:

Society is now riven between the memory haves and the memory have-nots. On the one side are these colossal Proustian memory bullies who get 1,800 pages of recollection out of a mere cookie-bite...On the other side are those of us suffering the normal effects of time, living in the hippocampically challenged community that is one step away from leaving the stove on all day.

Are good memories becoming the prized object of one-upmanship among the generation who once did the same with SAT scores, cars, gadgets, real estate, and whose baby walked first while reading the entire Harry Potter oeuvre? A few days before Brooks, Michael Kinsley mused on similar lines about lifespans in another must-read-for-mid-lifers,  "Mine is Bigger Than Yours," in the New Yorker.

If you fear you're among Brooks's memory have-nots, cheer yourself up with Martha Weinman Lear's Where Did I Leave My Glasses?, a reassuring romp through what's known about normal memory loss. (Normal is even italicized in the subtitle, speaking of reassuring.)  She points out cheerful facts like, people's brains shrink by about one-half percent per year, beginning in the 30s:

"In the thirties! [she writes] Whether this should make us feel better or worse, I'm not sure. But it does suggest a snappy comeback if your children ever heckle you, however tenderly, about your memory."

Image by flickr user tj scenes used under the Creative Commons attribution license.