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February 19, 2019

Why we should not blame others for temporary memory lapses

In a restaurant, ask for half a glass of water to drink and chances are the waitress will ignore the ‘half’ instruction and bring a full glass of water or bring what looks more like a quarter of a glass than the half requested. So much for debating whether your glass is half full or half empty, as Africans we are either totally optimistic or depressingly pessimistic. So we debate, “Is Africa the rising continent or the continent full of disease and poverty? Is this the place where there are so many fantastic athletes or is this the place that bribes to be allowed to host world events”?

It can be difficult to tell sometimes whether people are talking about the same thing. A small child knows the solution when they are faced with contradictions they do not want to face, they simply shut down, pout even burst into tears; the idea being to change the subject from that which is unpleasant.

Adults though have a different way of confronting unpleasant truths, they simply ‘forget’. The problem with deliberately forgetting something is that sometimes you are really required to remember something. And here some tenets of adult learning can help.

Practice suggests that an adult is more likely to remember something if they do it, experiential learning, than if they just read about it. So if an adult is asked about something they read about, during an exam for example following lectures they are less likely to remember everything compared to being asked about something they did and experienced. That is why people do not react too badly if a student fails to get 100 per cent in an exam but are incredulous when someone denies being involved in something that they should remember having done.

 But before condemning any person who first denies having done something then later on ‘remembers’ that they had in fact done what they were accused of, consider the process of remembering anything. Consider, for example, the last meal you had as you read this article. You can probably remember pretty clearly what you ate. But if you were to be asked what you ate on January 23, chances are you will not remember easily. Unless there is a compelling reason to remember, your brain will ‘forget’ such stuff. The trick in life is committing to memory that which is important for your life to function. Unfortunately for all of us forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging.

Just like the rest of the body slows down so does the brain. One way in which our memory slows down is that as we age it takes a lot longer to figure out new things. Give a child a smart phone and within minutes they are smart about it. Give a middle aged plus adult a smart phone and it is clear why it is the phone that is called smart. Other than age there are other factors that can contribute to poor memory. Lack of proper sleep, either in the quantity or quality is probably the single most common cause of temporary memory lapses. Taking alcohol, either over-indulging in an acute episode or chronic use is often a cause of memory loss, with alcoholics often unable to account for large chunks of their day. Stress in itself or compounded by not eating properly or not sleeping can be a factor. Lastly, taking certain drugs especially those that have an effect on the brain can affect our memory.

So there are many reasons why memory loss can be occur. The question is when to worry and see a doctor? Because we have a youthful population half are still teens and only five per cent are over 65 years, diseases and conditions of old age are still relatively rare. Nevertheless that small proportion, given our population of 45 million Kenyans, means that we now have almost one million elderly persons. For such people dementia is a real threat. Two of the most common forms of dementia in older people are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. With Alzheimer’s disease there is progressive loss of memory especially near term memory and as the illness progresses patients lose the capacity to look after themselves and forget how to do everyday things like feeding and bathing. In the case of vascular dementia, a stroke damages the brain leading to sudden memory loss. Unfortunately dementia is progressive and irreversible. So when someone remembers what they ought to have remembered in the first place then for sure they do not have dementia. What they may be lacking is regular exercise and a good night’s sleep.



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