What, you lost your glasses — again? And you have no idea where you parked your car? And the name of your favorite sitcom — it’s on the tip of your tongue, but you just can’t quite remember it?
Fear not. Such minor forgetfulness is pretty normal, neuroscientist Lisa Genova told an audience of more than 750 people at a recent Zoom event, hosted by the Friends of the Hennepin County Library.
Genova, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, is the author of five bestselling novels, all centering on people with brain maladies. “Still Alice,” her bestselling novel about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, was made into an Academy Award-winning film.
Her new book, “Remember,” her first book of nonfiction, delves into why we remember, why we forget and how the brain works. Here are highlights from her recent talk. (You can watch the full talk at supporthclib.org/lisa-genova.)
On ‘normal forgetting’
I have been talking about Alzheimer’s for over a decade, and I found that the conversation invariably drifts from Alzheimer’s to normal forgetting — but people don’t know what’s normal. We have this conception that memory is a perfect thing. It wasn’t even when we were 20, but I don’t think we even noticed or cared when we were 20. But when we’re 50, people start getting really scared and anxious.
So with this (nonfiction) book, I could reassure them and explain why they are really normal — how we remember and how we normally forget and what we can do to improve our memory.
On why we forget things
The No. 1 first ingredient for creating a memory that’s going to last beyond the moment is attention. You cannot remember something if you don’t pay attention. I think a lot of us think of memory as a video camera and it’s recording a constant stream and all you have to do to retrieve something is hit “play.” That is not memory.
You’re only going to keep what you pay attention to. So when your keys go missing or your phone or your glasses — and we do these things every day — this likely doesn’t involve your memory at all. This is a symptom of distraction — you did not pay attention to putting your glasses here. You’re texting, you’re thinking about the 12 things you need to do, and you’re not paying attention to what you’re doing. You can’t create a memory of what you don’t pay attention to.
On the different kinds of memory
There’s the memory for the stuff we know, the facts and information, like the stuff you learn in school. And there’s the memory for the stuff that happens, the episodic memory. This is the story of your life. There’s muscle memory, which doesn’t actually live in your muscles but lives in your brain. This is the stuff you can do — ride a bike, brush your teeth, drive the car. There’s also the memory for what you plan to do later.
For something that I remember that happened, that will change over time with every time I retell it. Every time I recall it, I have an opportunity to add something to it, subtract something. Maybe my mood is different now, maybe I can interpret it differently. Maybe I heard something on the news related to this thing that happened. I can slide that in, as well. This is not necessarily consciously done.
When I go to restore that memory, the new memory is what gets stored and it overwrites the old memory.
On memory games
Brain games and crosswords will not help you improve your memory. You’ll get better at doing those brain games, and you’ll get good at crosswords, but it doesn’t translate.
On the importance of sleep
Sleep is super important for your memory. Events are being consolidated into a lasting memory while you sleep. If you don’t get enough sleep, the hippocampus might not have enough time to do its job. You go and try to retrieve (the memories) later and you’ll have a tough time and they won’t be fully retrievable.
If you have a horrible night’s sleep, do you have a hard time paying attention the next day? What do you need to form a new memory? Attention. So you won’t have formed the memories of the stuff you learned yesterday and you’re not going to be able to form the memories of the stuff you learned today because you won’t be able to pay attention.
The glial cells, the janitors of your brain, they do their job while you sleep. They clear away the metabolic debris that accumulated during the business of being awake. And one of the things it clears away is amyloid beta. And if amyloid beta isn’t cleared away, it’ll stick to itself and form plaque. That is the beginning of Alzheimer’s disease.
So if you want to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, one thing you can do is get enough sleep.
On how to get a good night’s sleep
Our body temperature needs to go down by 2 degrees for us to fall asleep. Maybe your room is too warm. Are you worried through the night? Write down everything you need to do tomorrow before you go to bed.
Caffeine is a big deal. Caffeine is actually great for memory — it wakes your brain up. But you want to be careful about when you have this last latté of the day because the half-life of caffeine is five hours. That means that five hours later, half of the caffeine is still in your body.
On stress and memory
Stress will inhibit your ability to remember. Chronic stress is super bad for memory. Exercise, even a brisk walk every day, can save our hippocampus. Yoga, meditation, deep breathing.
If you close your eyes and breathe in to the count of four, through your nose, it calms everything down. You can do this several times throughout the day.
On giving in and using Google
If you can’t remember something, people think if they google it, it’s cheating. It’s not. It does not make your memory stronger by forcing yourself to remember it, and you do not make your memory weaker by googling it. A normal glitch in your memory doesn’t mean you’re getting Alzheimer’s.
Retiring early? Here’s how to stretch your money and make the most of Social Security
Stretch your savings
New research gives important guidance on how to stretch your retirement dollars the furthest: In your 60s, lean on a “bridge” of withdrawals from your 401(k) and don’t start claiming Social Security until you turn 70.
While you can start claiming your Social Security retirement benefit at age 62, doing so locks in the minimum benefit you are entitled to; waiting until 70 to start entitles you to the maximum benefit. And the gap is massive: Starting at 62 will give you 76% less than starting at 70. There is no other risk-free investment out there that hands you a guaranteed 76% return over eight years. Yet fewer than 10% of retirees wait until age 70 to begin receiving Social Security.
Plan for longevity
Unless you have a pre-existing condition that suggests a shorter-than-average life expectancy, waiting for that higher payout will more than pay off assuming you live into your mid-80s. (For the record, if you make it to 65, the odds are that you will indeed live at least that long.)
That might seem beside the point if you’re stopping work at 62 or 64 or 66, and need money to live on. You might be thinking you simply don’t have the luxury to wait to claim Social Security.
But if you have money saved in a 401(k), the wonks at the Center for Retirement Studies at Boston College (CRR) have crunched the numbers and found that many retirees will lock in a better long-term retirement income stream if they use a “bridge” strategy.
- Step 1: Wait until age 70 to start claiming Social Security.
- Step 2: Make withdrawals from your 401(k) that are equal to what your Social Security benefit would be if claiming at your “full retirement age.” For anyone born in 1943 or later, FRA is between 66 and 67. You can calculate your FRA at the Social Security website, ssa.gov.
401(k) vs. Social Security
The CRR researchers created a model using household survey data from 2016 that showed 65-year-old single men who had 401(k) savings had a median account value of $106,000 and were eligible for an annual Social Security benefit around $15,400. Women with 401(k) savings had a median account value of $110,000 and were eligible for an annual Social Security payout of around $14,500.
CRR then calculated how withdrawing money from the 401(k), in place of drawing Social Security, compared to buying an immediate-income annuity or a deferred income annuity.
For the record: Both of these types of annuities are solid ways to generate guaranteed retirement income. But as the researchers note, even when they may be a smart strategy, retirees have shown little appetite for handing over a big chunk of their savings to an insurance company.
Your Social Security benefit is in effect an annuity that you already own. The researchers set out to see how waiting for the optimal time to claim — age 70 — stacked up against the commercial annuities you could use to generate guaranteed retirement income.
The model factored in investment risk (for a diversified retirement portfolio), life expectancy, and the probability of later-life spending “shocks” (see: healthcare expenses).
For both a single man and woman, with median 401(k) wealth, drawing down a portion of their retirement savings as a “bridge” that allows them to delay claiming Social Security is the best way to go to generate optimal retirement income. The strategy is also smart for households with above-average 401(k) savings.
Full retirement age
If you register at the Social Security website you can get an estimate of your Social Security benefits if you were to claim at 62, at your full retirement age or at age 70. Then you can decide if you want to withdraw your FRA amount (or less) from your 401(k) so you wait to claim Social Security as long as possible.
Not sure about all the moving pieces? This is where hiring a fiduciary financial planner to work through the numbers with you can be a great investment. Plenty of planners will take on the assignment and charge an hourly or project fee. No need to enter into a long-term ongoing relationship if that’s not what you want.
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