Can failing memory be improved?

Everyone is concerned about their memories, at least everyone over the age of 50 that I can recall. So, to keep our minds sharp, we slog through The New York Times crossword, do our aerobic walks, and pop all kinds of expensively dubious pills. But does any of this really work?

If anyone would know, it’s Cathryn Ramin. She is a well-regarded journalist who also happens to be of “a certain age” and plagued by her own uncertain memory. Besides a good pen and an ethical compass, a journalist needs her memory. Ramin decided to make herself the research subject of her own investigation into what works and what doesn’t when it comes to shoring up one’s flagging memory. The result is Carved in Sand, a book about her “journey in pursuit of a more reliable mind.” It has struck a chord; her book is now 34th on The New York Times bestseller list and climbing.

Cathryn Ramin
Lisa Jakobson

I was keen to speak to Ramin about what really can make a difference in memory retention before I spent one more Sunday morning figuring out what the hell a Sudoku is when I could be watching cartoons. In an email exchange, Ramin confirmed that it is indeed important to be engaged in activities that are mentally challenging. But, she was quick to point out, not all mental challenges are created equal. “People often confuse the endless chores of daily living with mental challenges,” she said. “It’s not the same! If, for instance, you’re a real estate attorney and you put together the same complicated deals over and over again, that’s not a mental challenge. A mental challenge means doing something new, that does not come easily to you.”

In other words, something that makes your brain ache. “People often misinterpret this to mean that one ought to take up calculus. Not so. Scrabble, bridge, chess are all stellar because they are always different, require lots of working memory and, most important, involve social interaction. This is actually critical. Our brains were set up to interact with other human beings, and many pathways go unused when we are either isolated or too engaged with screens.”

And this brought us to salsa dancing, which is why I contacted Ramin in the first place. On Good Morning America she revealed that she had taken up the hip gyrating exercise as one of the best defenses against memory loss. Why? “There’s memorization-you must learn and recall the steps and sequences,” she said. “And you are also involved in moving your body in space, working with your partner, and not crashing into others on the dance floor.”

It seems that any activity that combines movement with memorization and socialization is the best ticket to vitalizing our memories. That would make Tai Chi and even square dancing contenders.

Okay, but this sounds like a lot of work. Can’t I just pop one of those memory pills and be done with it? There doesn’t seem to be a lot of scientific support for them, contended Ramin, even though Americans lay out almost 23 billion dollars for them a year. In her book she cites some recent studies that are looking more promising, such as the UC Irvine study where aging beagles’ diets were enhanced with antioxidants, finding that old dogs could indeed learn new tricks.

Ramin pointed out that gingko biloba-a hugely popular supplement-works well to increase blood flow to the brain in cases where this is sluggish, but doesn’t do much else. “The most promising studies show good things with Omega 3s, magnesium, a little co-enzyme Q-10, and alpha lipoic acid,” writes Ramin.

I did note that one of our email exchanges included a request from Ramin to her assistant to remind her to answer my query. I found that enlightening. Perhaps one of the best ways to make sure we remember things is to have a good assistant nearby.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara. Comment at and visit his Web site/blog at for more information on the topics covered in this column.


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