Dementia of the Preoccupied

By the time you walk from one room to the next, you’ve forgotten what you intended to do once you got there. You meet someone new and have lost track of his/her name before the first conversation is over. You sit down to your computer, get sucked into your incoming emails, and then can’t remember whom you intended to write to in the first place. Sound familiar?

These experiences might leave you worried that you are on the scary slide to dementia. While it’s true that memory and brain functioning are generally strongest in our 30s and then begin to falter, there is much that you can do to prevent decline and regain cognitive functioning. Also, epigenetics (the study of the interaction between genetics and lifestyle/environment) has shown that even those with genetic vulnerability for dementia can prevent those genes from being activated by making healthy lifestyle choices.

Neuroscientist, Frances Jensen, noticed her own brain changing with age and described it as “dementia of the preoccupied.” Our environment bombards us with information and demands for frequent task switching, making it difficult for the mind to gather up and store all of the incoming bits. Here are some things you can do to manage this and keep your mind sharp:

1) Block distractions: Turn off notifications. Close your office door. Turn off your phone, or use the “do not disturb” function, which allows you to specify only the caller(s) you need to receive.

2) Slow down: Dwell on your tasks more intently. Bring your full attention to the single task you are doing. Breathe.

3) Get enough sleep: During sleep, the brain consolidates what it has learned during the day. The brain is more active while sleeping than during our waking hours, working hard to sort and store our experiences.

4) Employ reminders: Use your brain space only for your top priorities. Keep other lists, scheduling details, and miscellaneous information on your external hard drive (e.g., smart phone, notebook, etc.).

5) Make it sticky: Use visual imagery, songs, and other associations to connect the new information to existing mental content. When you meet a new person named David, take a second to imagine him lined-up with all of the other Davids you already know.

6) Get your heart pumping: Cardiovascular exercise nourishes the brain and clears away the brain’s extensive cellular waste. If you have a mental block, taking even a 5-minute break to walk around the block will help refresh your brain for clearer thinking.

These strategies can support your brain to manage countless bits of new information, ensure that they get properly stored, and enable you to find them again when needed.


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