AGING
August 14, 2009

Get Physical To Remember

Did you take that pill today, or yesterday? Doing something like crossing your arms when you take a pill can help you remember habitual acts...

Did you take your medication this morning? When a task becomes routine, like taking a pill morning after morning, it can be difficult to remember later on whether or not you've actually done it. A joint U.S. and German study suggests that getting physical can help. Crossing your arms or knocking on a table when you take medication seems to stick in the mind and help you remember later that yes, you've taken your pill.

You could even dance the Macarena, if you’re so inclined.

Older adults are more likely to incorrectly repeat a task once it has become habitual, like taking daily medication.

Previous research by the study authors had shown that older adults are more likely to incorrectly repeat a task once it has become habitual, like taking daily medication. This can lead to dangerous double dosing. In this study, the authors tested a couple of possible ways seniors might learn to avoid this. They tested whether instructions not to repeat a task if there was even the slightest doubt it was a repetition would help and also whether an unusual physical action would aid the seniors' memory.

Seniors, whose average age was 72, had their abilities compared to those of college students while performing various keyboard tasks. One part involved simple letter recognition sequences; see a “g”, press the key for “h.” Under certain conditions, the seniors were also supposed to press the F1 key during the three−minute exercise. But they were only supposed to press F1 once, no matter what they saw. That was the memory part of the test.

Seniors who put a hand on their head while pressing F1 were much less likely to incorrectly press it again than those who didn't use this memory technique. Their error rate was about the same as that of the college students.

Instructions not to press the F1 key if the seniors had any doubt at all whether they had already pressed it were not nearly as helpful.

When the task became more complicated — the seniors had to listen to a series of random numbers and push a clicker when they heard two odd numbers in a row, in addition to the letter recognition task—the seniors couldn't equal the performance of the college students, even using the hand on head technique. But they still made considerably fewer errors with the F1 key than their senior counterparts who didn't place their hand on their head.

If it works with a keyboard, it should work with medication, too. The next time you take your pills, tap your knee or flash a "V" for victory. It might help you remember later.

The results of the study were published in the July issue of Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition.

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