It’s difficult to understand what prospective memory is until it begins to fail us. An example of this would be going to the store and forgetting to bring your shopping list. It’s also knowing you have a doctor’s appointment but forgetting to the take your keys to the car. Or how about that time you were cooking a meal and forgot what ingredient you were looking for in the refrigerator? Sound familiar? That’s prospective memory at work…well, more accurately, not at work. You have not remembered to take the action you had planned.

Science has long recognized the worsening of prospective memory as sign of aging but also a possible early warning sign of Alzheimer’s as well as other diseases of cognitive impairment. Recently, scientists think they’ve found a way to remediate the deterioration of prospective memory before people begin to have serious problems with it, like forgetting to take medication. And it has come to us from across the pond, in Chichester, UK.

A research team led by Dr. Antonina from the University of Chichester, thinks prospective memory can be improved through acting, something the scientists refer to as enactment techniques. And believes she and her team – that includes members from Radboud University Nijmegen, Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Lisbon – have proven it. The results were published this month in the professional journal, Neurology.

The Study

The team looked at prospective memory performance of 96 participants that included patients with mild cognitive impairment aged 64 to 87 years, healthy older adults aged 62 to 84 years, and younger adults aged 18 to 22 years before the performance of an enhancement technique (acting), then compared it after utilizing the enhancement technique.
 
In anticipation of the results, Dr. Antonina said, “Poor prospective memory can range from the vaguely annoying to life threatening, depending on the circumstances. We wanted to confirm two things — that prospective memory deteriorates with age and that enactment techniques might support those with a poor prospective memory.”

All age groups did, in fact, show improvement in prospective memory, but it was particularly evident among the older subjects with mild cognitive impairment, those who were potentially in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Antonina added: “We did indeed find that prospective memory erodes as we get older, and our early findings in this little-researched area would suggest that enactment techniques are effective in improving prospective memory. We were heartened to see that there was improvement in our group with mild cognitive impairment. Enactment techniques offer the potential for a cost-effective and widely applicable method that can support independent living. This contributes to an individual’s health, well-being and social relationships while reducing the burden of care.”

What now?

Those of us over 55 probably see ourselves reflected in these prospective memory lapses. So, what can we do about it?

Dr. Antonina weighs in on the practical application of her findings thusly, “The next time you would like to remember to pick up a pint of milk from the store on your way home, do not wait until you have got home to realize you have forgotten to do it. Instead, recreate the action you would like to remember, pretending that you are actually doing it, in as much vivid detail as possible. This might feel awkward to begin with, but it has been identified as an optimal technique to enhance prospective memory. It can have very long lasting effects and work even for people with cognitive impairment. Acting is the key.”

Now, where did I leave that grocery list!


Research

1. University of Chichester. “Psychologists find that acting is the key to remembering tasks: Research explores prospective memory which reminds people to take action in the future.” ScienceDaily, 2 August 2018
https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/08/180802115627.htm

2. Antonina Pereira, Mareike Altgassen, Lesley Atchison, Alexandre de Mendonça, Judi Ellis. Sustaining prospective memory functioning in amnestic mild cognitive impairment: A lifespan approach to the critical role of encoding… Neuropsychology, 2018; 32 (5): 634 DOI: 
10.1037/neu0000441