The Web      Powered by


Return to Transcripts main page


Improving Memory

Aired June 11, 2005 - 08:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning and welcome to HOUSECALL. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Your memory is your own personal recorded history, who you are and what you've experienced. Some people find their train of thought has become a runaway locomotive and they've just forgotten what they wanted to say or do. Sound familiar? Well, then it's time to head to memory boot camp.


LINDA JENKINS, MEMORY BOOT CAMPER: Hey, I'll talk to you later. Hi, this is Linda.

GUPTA (voice-over): In her line of work, 53-year-old Linda Jenkins spends practically all day talking.

JENKINS: You know what? I don't know who I was talking to. What? I'm lost.

GUPTA: And lately, she's been hitting some blank spots.

JENKINS: A big...

GUPTA: Causing her a lot of anxiety.

JENKINS: I'll be talking along and all of a sudden -- when that happens so often, it causes tension. It is frustrating. Oh, absolutely, to me it is.

GUPTA: So Jenkins is trying an unusual program to fix her memory flameouts. The first boot camp for the brain, run by the Memory Fitness Institute in Fountain Valley, California.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I hope I remember to come.


GARY SMALL, DR., MEMORY FITNESS INSTITUTE: You can come home today and start protecting your brain.

GUPTA: The brains of the operation is Dr. Gary Small. The program, based on his book "The Memory Prescription." He has spent his life trying to unravel the memory mystery.

While admitting there are other factors, he says simple lifestyle changes can improve your memory in just 14 days. SMALL: What can we do today to keep our brains healthy and fit? And here it is, the big four. Mental activity, physical conditioning, healthy diet, stress reduction, the key to memory fitness.

GUPTA: Back at boot camp, Jenkins is already busy. First, stocking up on healthy brain foods, rich in antioxidants and with plenty of Omega 3 fatty acids, which Small says may keep brain cells from degenerating. Some of his discussion suggestions are blueberries, prunes, salmon, and nuts. Another prescription, cut down on stress. That's a memory buster.

JENKINS: That's enough.

GUPTA: Two other key elements of the program, exercise your body and your brain. Like zany story telling methods to remember lists of words.

JENKINS: The more fantastic or exaggerated you can make the picture, the easier it is to remember.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I had a lawyer wearing a vest eating an artichoke and a banana.

GUPTA: Mind benders or simply writing with your left hand if you're right-handed. All are ways boot campers sharpen their brains during weekly meetings.


GUPTA: You know, there's more to remember than ever. Business information expert Richard Worman calculated that everyday "The New York Times" carries more information than a person in the 17th century took in their entire lifetime. Nowadays, it's all about your memory and keeping it sharp.

To help answer e-mail questions, we're joined by Professor Anderson Smith. He's a professor of psychology at Georgia Tech here in Atlanta. And Dr. Smith's specialty is cognitive aging or how your memory changes as you change.

And thank you very much for joining us.


GUPTA: I'm glad you're here, because you know, my memory is not so good.

SMITH: As you said, I remembered to come.

GUPTA: You remembered to come. And maybe you can teach me a couple things, teach everybody a couple things. Lots of people obviously focused on memory, quite a bit. Lots of e-mails coming in. Let's get right to them.

Several e-mails lined up. First of all, Carolyn in Vermont asks, "Is there a 'normal' amount of memory loss and, as a guideline, when should a doctor be contacted?"

Everybody that we talk to, professor, complains about memory loss. Is there a normal amount?

SMITH: Actually, memory loss is normal, but the actual amount of loss and the rate of loss really differs significantly between people. In fact, the differences within an age group are larger than the differences between age groups.

GUPTA: When do you start losing your memory?

SMITH: You start, believe it or not, about mid 20s.

GUPTA: Oh, that hurts.

SMITH: We actually show differences between 30-year-olds and 40- year-olds, between 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds. So there's sort of a steady decline with a much steeper decline obviously when you reach old age in the 70s.

GUPTA: Is it as easy as Dr. Small says, you know, the good diet, the eating the fish and the nuts and all that?

SMITH: Well, there's no question that lifestyle is going to influence your psychological health, as well as your physical health. And physical health is going to influence your psychological health. And part of that psychological health is cognitive ability.

GUPTA: All right.

SMITH: It's controlled by the brain. If you have a healthy brain, you're going to be better.

GUPTA: Let's keep working through this. Move to another e-mail now. Jimmy in Camp Pendleton, California asks, "I'm 27." You were just saying mid 20s, right? "I'm 27 and I'm starting to feel that my memory is deteriorating. Can memory be restored, or is it going to continue to slide downhill."

So what do you tell Jimmy? He's 27?

SMITH: Yes, well, memory's going to continue to decline. But just as we saw that Gary Small was doing in his boot camp, there are things you can do. There are techniques you can use. If you have something that bothers you about your memory and you're losing the ability to do something, there are specific techniques to help with very specific kinds of memory. These are called mnemonic devices.

And any bookstore will have to be filled with books on how to improve memory.

GUPTA: Do you do this -- do some of these techniques?

SMITH: We've actually tested some. In fact, we can improve memory with mnemonic devices. However, we don't reduce age differences. Older adults will improve with these mnemonic devices the same way that younger adults are.

So I can't say if you're a 60-year-old and you want to get your memory back to a 20-year-old, you're not going to be able to do that.

GUPTA: And you carry around a lot of external memory devices as you call them.

SMITH: Yes I do. I'm now 60 years old. And I have to rely much more on lists, on my Palm Pilot, on computer calendars. I have to rely really heavily on those now.

I think when was in my 20s, I prided myself that I never had to write anything down.

GUPTA: We are talking to Professor Anderson Smith about memory. Everybody wants it. It's hard to define, though. Stay tuned to HOUSECALL. More of your e-mail questions are coming up.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The seven sins of memory, the things that make you forget. We'll count them down. And pick a card and pick your brain.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The last card I think was the 8 of diamonds.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We'll share some tricks to train your memory. But first, take today's daily dose quiz. Which of the following foods will not help improve your memory? A, fish, b, blueberries, c, coffee, or d, water? We'll have the answer when we return.




UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Checking the daily dose quiz, we asked, which of the following foods will not help improve your memory? A, fish, b, blueberries, c, coffee or d, water? The answer is c, coffee, which could dehydrate you and your brain, making it hard to concentrate.


GUPTA: Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter has studied the ways our memories fail us. And he's written about them in "The Seven Sins of Memory." Transience.

DANIEL SCHACTER, HARVARD PSYCHOLOGIST: Memories tend to fade over time.

GUPTA: Absentmindedness. SCHACTER: Lapses of attention.

GUPTA: Blocking when a word is on the tip of your tongue.

SCHACTER: We can't get at the information at the information at the moment that we want it.

GUPTA: Misattribution.

SCHACTER: This occurs when some form of memory is present but it's wrong.

GUPTA: Suggestibility.

SCHACTER: This occurs when we remember things that did not happen or remember -- we remember things differently from the way that they actually happened.

GUPTA: Hindsight bias.

SCHACTER: This occurs when our present knowledge, beliefs, and feelings skews or distorts our memory for past events.

GUPTA: And persistence.

SCHACTER: Persistence occurs when we have a vivid memory, often an emotionally arousing or traumatic memory that we wish we'd forget, but we can't.

GUPTA: Some people say loss of memory is a curse. But as you just heard, maybe it just has some sinlike components.

How important is all of this? And what really makes us forget? Anderson Smith, he's a professor from Georgia Tech, joins us again as we talk about memory.

"The Several Sins of Memory" really interesting. Is it one of those things that worsens as you get older?

SMITH: Yes, it does. It -- almost all of those show increases with aging. For example, older adults have a much harder time with name finding, with sort of tip of the tongue phenomenon. It doesn't mean they've lost the memory.

GUPTA: Blocking.

SMITH: Because eventually they will get that.

GUPTA: Right.

SMITH: In enough time, they will get it, but they have more experience on the tip of the tongue.

GUPTA: What really is making us forget? I mean is it parts of our brain that is changing? Or what is happening? SMITH: The two aspects of memory that change the most with aging are what is called working memory, the ability to think and do a lot of things at the same time with your memory.

And then the other is what is called episodic memory, which is really memory for past experiences. And they're controlled by the parts of the brain that showed the largest changes with aging.

The hippocampus area in the frontal lobes, the sort of parietal temporal lobes and the frontal lobes. So there's a correlation with the brain changes and with these memory changes that we see in normal aging.

GUPTA: Is it just - I mean, is it literally -- can you think of the brain like a sponge? I mean, as you accumulated so many years of life, and so many experiences, seen so many things, so many faces that you literally become saturated?

SMITH: I don't think so. In fact, I like to think a metaphor to bring it's not something that fills up, but it's like scaffolding. And the more you have, the more you have places to associate things.

So actually, a lot of people compensate for the loss of episodic memory, for example, by the fact that they've had many, many more experiences and they can form many more associations. And that increases with aging.

So what we call semantic memory, remembering things by conceptual keys, like who was the first president of the United States.

GUPTA: Right.

SMITH: You don't remember how you learned that or where you learned it, you just know it. And that information - that kind of memory actually increases with aging up until the 70s.

GUPTA: Really interesting stuff. From external forces that affect our memory to those out of our control, we have this e-mail question coming in from Karen in Illinois. And you get these kind of questions all the time, professor.

But she asks, "I turn 40 next month and my mother had Alzheimer's Disease. I've noticed for a couple of years that my memory slowly seems to be getting worse. Is there some type of early testing for Alzheimer's?"

We get this question a lot. What do you tell her?

SMITH: Well, she can do some genetic testing, if she really wants to find out if she has greater susceptibility to Alzheimer's. If her mother had a particular kind of Alzheimer's Disease, it does have -- we know what the genes are, then she can look to see if she's at risk for that particular kind of Alzheimer's.

GUPTA: You can test a gene for Alzheimer's? SMITH: Oh, you look for an allial (ph) that is the one which is an at risk for Alzheimer's Disease. That's rarely done, but it could be done.

And in terms of testing the actual memory to see, that's very difficult because you don't know whether her memory is early Alzheimer's, what's called mild cognitive impairment, or whether it's just the fact that she has poor memory.

GUPTA: Right.

SMITH: And really, you can't really test for Alzheimer's Disease until you get into the early stages of the disease, which is almost obvious.

But if she is worried about that, there are memory assessment clinics. There are people at most major metropolitan areas have Alzheimer centers. And they will have a memory clinic where you can go in and you can actually have your memory assessed by neuro psychologists.

GUPTA: More people ask about this than just about anything else. And let's get to some more e-mail. Stay on topic here. Jim in Tennessee, he asks, "Are there any drugs proven to help with memory and are they available over the counter?" Quick fix.


GUPTA: No drugs.

SMITH: There are some drugs that are prescribed for Alzheimer patients, but they do not reverse the -- any of the problems. They simply - I mean in some people, they slow down the progression of the disease. That's all it do.

So we do not have any drugs yet that actually treat Alzheimer's in the sense of reversing cognitive loss. And no, there's nothing you can do for normal cognitive changes with aging.

GUPTA: You have a pretty emphatic no there. You know, obviously people hear about ginko biloba, for example. What about that?

SMITH: There are clinical trials of that going on right now. And there's some evidence that supports -- that has some effect. And there are other studies that show it has no effect. We just don't have the really strong clinical trials that would allow us to look at supplements, to look at antioxidants, and to - you know, I take Vitamin E because I believe that antioxidants are important. But whether or not the intake of that through a vitamin tablet can really reverse the cognitive declines, we don't have the data for that yet.

GUPTA: Don't have the data. Not ready to...

SMITH: Not ready to make...

GUPTA: ...go tell people to waste their money on this stuff yet. SMITH: Yes.

GUPTA: All right, we're talking to Professor Anderson Smith. Taking a lot more of your e-mail questions. That's all coming up. And...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We get tricky with a deck of cards to help you recall just how to remember.

But first, this week's medical headlines in the pulse.


CHRISTY FEIG, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): An Alabama woman gave birth to a baby girl this week, after receiving an ovarian tissue transplant from her sister. The baby's mother wasn't able to conceive until she received the transplant from her twin sister. It's believed to be a first in the United States. The doctor who performed the surgery believes this procedure can also work for women who aren't twins.

Medical marijuana users can be prosecuted by the federal government the Supreme Court decided this week, even in states where it's legal for doctors to recommend the drug. The court argued that allowing the drugs used even for medical purposes undermines national drug control efforts. But medical marijuana advocates say the drug is the only option for some Americans with chronic pain.

Peanut allergies may soon be a thing of the past. Researchers found that by using a special fermentation process, they can make the proteins in peanuts that cause the allergy less toxic. Peanut allergies are among the most common types of food allergies in the U.S. And eating the nuts can cause a broad range of problems, including deadly inephalactic (ph) shock in those with severe allergies.

Christy Feig, CNN.




GUPTA: We're back with HOUSECALL. Experts tell you to exercise your mind just as you would your body, to improve your memory. I sat down with a memory champion to learn some tricks of the trade.


GUPTA (voice-over): All he needs is a second with each card. And Scott Hagwood can remember half the deck.

SCOTT HAGWOOD, MEMORY SPECIALIST: The last card I think was the 8 of diamonds.

GUPTA: There it is. Talk me through this.

HAGWOOD: I'm converting the cards to images or to experiences that are personal to me. For example, the four of hearts is an experience. And this case, it's a rabbit. And I can feel the fur. And I can see the whiskers moving because our physical eyes train for movement. So is our mental eye.

GUPTA: Once he has the image, he places it in his mind in a part of his house, beginning with the corner of his living room.

HAGWOOD: The way that I organize our minds is I walk through my house. Because I've got at least 10 rooms in the house. And each one of those rooms has four corners, four walls, a floor and a ceiling.

GUPTA: Now it's my turn.

HAGWOOD: You see the 6 of diamonds. Is there anything that comes to your mind?

GUPTA: The type of ring that my wife would have liked for her engagement.

In my mind, I picture that diamond ring on a computer in the corner of the studio.

I actually see the ring sort of on the screen itself.

HAGWOOD: OK, is there any way that you can give that ring movement?

GUPTA: I'm off. And a few moments later, I'm put to the test.

HAGWOOD: Sixth card?

GUPTA: Seven of clubs.

HAGWOOD: Yes. 7th card?

GUPTA: Eight of diamonds.


GUPTA: Eighth card is jack of spades.


GUPTA: Four of clubs.


GUPTA: Nine of spades.

HAGWOOD: Excellent.

GUPTA: It works. If I can learn it, anybody can learn it.


GUPTA: So true for sure. Just as exercising the brain may help you remember stress or too much on your mind, may make you forget. How surprising.

We're joined again by Anderson Smith. He's a professor.

Let's get straight to an e-mail, another one.


GUPTA: Lots of e-mails coming in about this. This was one of my favorites, I got to tell you. This comes from Susan in Queensbury, New York.

And she asks, "I'm 43 and the mother of four young boys. I can go from one room to the next and not remember why. I can ask my son a question and literally seconds after, not remember what we discussed. Should I be concerned?"

What do you say, professor?

SMITH: Susan, four young boys in the house, I'm surprised have you any function left.

GUPTA: What do you tell her, though seriously?

SMITH: Stress is very related to cognitive functioning. We've known that for a long time. And that's why one of the things that was talked about earlier was to come up with some program of stress reduction. Really helps to improve memory.

So she just needs to come up with a way to find some quiet time, find a way to sort of regulate her -- the level of stress that she's feeling at any point. And she'll probably find that she's not as bad off as she thinks.

GUPTA: Can she get it back? I mean, if she does some of these things, finds some time, an hour a day, can she get back to where she was before?

SMITH: It's just regulating the stress. If she can figure out a way to regulate the stress, then she'll probably find that she's not as what -- I'm sure she feels is early dementia, because of this constant loss of memory due to the stress of having to take care of four little boys.

GUPTA: Right. I'm sure she is doing a great job. Susan, we're rooting for you.

Another e-mail coming in from Wasiul in San Jose, California.

"Does a severe emotional depression trigger a loss of memory, which then may exist for a longer time?"

GUPTA: So the ultimate in stress here. SMITH: Yes. Memory - excuse me, depression doesn't produce an amnesia like loss of memory, like a head trauma would. But depression is also associated with -- I just read a large study that was done in the Netherlands, where they showed that psychological health is measured by lack of depression, lack of anxiety as a better predictor of cognition than physical health.


SMITH: And we know that physical health's very related to cognitive functioning. So yes, depression is something which will affect memory.

GUPTA: Lots of good information from Professor Anderson Smith. Thank you.

Stay tuned for more on HOUSECALL.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And even though when I face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A little girl with a big memory.

But first, a tip for keeping your body healthy in this edition of the bod squad.


ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Bagel day, birthday cake, candy goods, meetings with pizza. Are high sugar and high fat treats at the workplace making you pack on the pounds? Whether the treats are daily or weekly, experts say having the will to resist is key if the battle of the bulge is invading your work space.

First, be prepared to start off your day with a healthy breakfast. The easiest way to say no is to be satisfied and not starving when you get to work.

Also, bring healthy meals and snacks from home so you're not tempted by junk food. And don't give into peer pressure. If you decide that you don't want that slice of pizza or piece of cake, don't let anyone convince to you eat it.

Nutritionists say moderation is the answer. So indulge your sweet tooth on special occasions, but not every day at the office.

Elizabeth Cohen, CNN.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You write your own sentence.

GUPTA (voice-over): Even at a young age, our brains are capable of retaining extraordinary quantities of information. Abbie Julo (ph), age six, is a poster child for the learning power of the young.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who is the president of China?



GUPTA: With coaching from her father, the kindergartner has learned the names of world leaders, all 15 cabinet members, past presidents, first ladies and constitutional amendments. She can even recite Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the...


GUPTA: Really remarkable. Obviously she's very young. And you say that I'm 35 years old, but my memory's been on the decline for about 10 years, you think already.

SMITH: Yes, my daughter has this little game she plays on the computer, the memory game, where you match pictures.

GUPTA: Right.

SMITH: She can play that better, my granddaughter. She can do that better than I can. She's 4 years old.

GUPTA: Professor Anderson Smith, thank you so much.

SMITH: Thank you.

GUPTA: Lots of valuable information today.

SMITH: Thank you.

GUPTA: For more on this topic, check out, and click on that same Web site every Tuesday to find out our topic and e-mail in your questions. "House Call" is the place to ask the experts your medical questions every Saturday and Sunday at 8:30 Eastern.

Thanks so much for watching. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Stay tuned now for more news on CNN.


On CNN TV E-mail Services CNN Mobile CNN AvantGo CNNtext Ad info Preferences
   The Web     
Powered by
© 2005 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.
external link
All external sites will open in a new browser. does not endorse external sites.
 Premium content icon Denotes premium content.