Martha Weinman Lear (Book Review)

For a book that's meant to be reassuring, Martha Weinman Lear's Where Did I Leave My Glasses?: The What, When, and Why of Normal Memory Loss is a little hit and miss. Sure, the 86 million North American BABY BOOMERS who can recall where they were when JFK was shot but now can't find their car keys will be relieved to know the cause isn't incipient Alzheimer's. (Well, probably not.) But that's not much comfort for the rest of society, facing the alarming fact that the boomers, whose concerns have ruled society since they came of age in the 1960s, are moving en masse into their absent-minded-professor phase. Not to worry, though - what's-her-name, the author, banishes most worries with a witty and cheerful survey of what is going on in our AGING brains and just what we can do about it.

Names, in fact, are among the first things to go as our brains begin shrinking - by about half of one per cent annually - starting as early as our thirties. (That's followed by ebbing blood flows and flagging chemical neurotransmitters.) Aging brains have to let some things slip and, despite the importance we ascribe to our own names, our grip on other people's was always tenuous. Names lack context: unless "Bob" is among your nearest and dearest, the word alone will carry none of the memory-triggering associations of common nouns like "wall" or "money." Worse, visual memory is much more enduring than verbal, which is precisely what makes you embarrassingly conscious that you know the man walking toward you - even if you haven't a clue what to call him. At least if both memories faded in tandem, you'd stroll right by, serenely unaware you had just snubbed yesterday's lunch partner.

Name loss is only the most noticeable corner of the unholy triangle of age-related memory decline. In middle age we can't multi-task the way we did when we were younger: it becomes harder and harder to divide our attention (hence the lost car keys, laid down in an atypical place while we were thinking of what to make for dinner). And it also takes longer to process new information.

So what can you do about it? There are compensatory strategies, from the basics (make lists) to what experts call the spaced rehearsal technique. "Spaced" is the operative word. Don't rapidly mutter a new name over and over - your memory won't respond well. Instead, repeat it silently when you first hear it, wait 10 seconds, do that again, wait 20 seconds, and so on for a couple of minutes. As for social occasions, when Lear is chatting with X, whose name she has forgotten, and Y (ditto) approaches, and one of them utters the dreaded "I don't believe we've met," the author pauses, giving them time to exchange names, which they usually do. (If they don't, she says, "Sorry, I'll be right back," and heads for the nearest bathroom/cloakroom/black hole, "anywhere but there.")

As for multi-tasking woes, as far as possible, Lear advises, don't even attempt it. If you need to read an important document, do nothing but read it. Despite the constant pinging noise from your computer, do not look at your email. Do not answer your phone. As one researcher told Lear, "an 18-year-old can study for a chemistry test in the middle of a keg party and still pass, but as you get older, you have to pick and choose." It's also relatively simple to cope with the slowdown in information processing: take more time. In one memory test, a story was read to a mixed group of twentysomethings and septuagenarians. A half-hour afterwards, the young people remembered the details much better - but when the story was read to the group three times, back to back, the recall difference was almost erased. And for all kinds of memory troubles, exercise helps, both mental (try crosswords) and physical, (especially aerobic).

Effective but small-scale advice, however, is not likely to satisfy boomers in the Viagra era. Lear thinks "smart" pills, designed to chemically boost the age-weakened connections between our neural networks, will be widely available within 10 years. Scarcely more fanciful is MIT robotics professor Rodney Brooks' prediction - memory chip implants. Instead of using your computer's search engine, you'll be able to merely think of what you're looking for and have the results appear in your mind. Brooks predicts "most boomers will end up part human and part machine"; while at least one of his colleagues believes all machine. Imagine: a world where boomers may never go away.

Maclean's April 28, 2008