Forgetting things? Blame COVID-normal brain

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Forgetting things? Blame COVID-normal brain

What day is it again? Did I already go grocery shopping this week? Who sent me that text I need to reply to?

With most of Australia well out of lockdown — and even returning to some pre-COVID routines — why is it that many of us are still experiencing memory problems?

Lingering impact of lockdown life

Lockdowns were stressful for many people and for a long period of time.

People were adapting to working from home, learning how to home school, experiencing job loss, caring for sick family members, not to mention actually getting COVID-19 or the fear of getting it.

Over weeks and months of lockdowns — and then more weeks and months of changing restrictions — we’ve had little to no relief.

“That chronic stress response accumulates and takes a toll on brain function,” says neuroscientist Dr Lila Landowski from the University of Tasmania.

Dr Lila Landowski holding up a lab slate.
Dr Lila Landowski says the perfect antidote to stress is a combination of exercise, socialisation and good sleep hygiene.(Supplied)

“Stress is a hard-wired physical response that affects our entire body,” Dr Landowski explains.

“While brief moments of stress can help us reach our peak performance, when that stress persists over months to years, it can have damaging effects on the body — including altering brain structure and function.”

For example, the hippocampus — where short-term memory is stored — can shrink due to prolonged exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol.

“The connections between neurons in the hippocampus become weaker, making it difficult to retain information,” she says.

“Therefore, a chronically stressed person might have trouble keeping track of what they are doing or have a hard time remembering things.”

We’re probably still stressed

In our so-called COVID-normal lives, we’re also grappling with new stressors.

Everything from remembering to bring a mask with you when you leave home to keeping across the changing restrictions, means there’s an extra load on our brain that we’re not used to.

We have to weigh-up new risks for everyday activities, such as ducking down to the local shops or visiting grandparents in aged care.

All of this causes stresses which, in turn, impacts on memory and increases forgetfulness.

“Everything has become a bit harder in the pandemic,” says Dr Celia Harris, vice-chancellor’s senior research fellow in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Western Sydney.

Dr Celia Harris profile picture
Dr Celia Harris says COVID-normal living has introduced new stressors into everyday life from remembering your mask, to weighing up the risks of visiting a grandparent.(Supplied)

“This means that we are doing extra cognitive work all the time, and this acts like an extra load on our cognitive functioning that makes routine tasks more difficult and more likely to fail.”

Even returning to pre-COVID activities — such as going to work and taking the kids to school — may result in the memory-impairing effects of chronic stress.

“Returning to work means returning to the stress of bumper-to-bumper traffic for the long work commute home,” Dr Landowski says.

“It might mean risking the health of the family by potentially bringing COVID home from work [to] them.”

All is not lost

As we forge new routines and return to old ones, memory will likely improve — and “lost” memories may return.

“Current theories of memory argue that memory is a function of the similarity between the conditions of remembering and the conditions in which memory was formed,” says Dr Adam Osth, senior lecturer in psychology at The University of Melbourne.

A person taking a photo on their smartphone of a happy family gathering
Current theories suggest a link between memory and emotion – if you’re happy, it’s easier to remember memories of happy times.(Pexels: Askar Abayev)

“In other words, when you’re sad, it’s easier to remember memories of when you’re sad,” he explains, “but harder to remember memories [of] when you’re happy.”

So, if you’re experiencing continued stress, this may affect your ability to remember events from more peaceful times in your life.

“If someone is, instead, experiencing ‘ups and downs’ right now, their memories will fluctuate right along with that emotional rollercoaster,” Dr Osth says.

So you may remember something one day, but forget it the next — or vice versa.

“This may lead to some feelings like their memory is acting up. We expect that things that are forgotten should stay forgotten,” Dr Osth says.

“But this is exactly consistent with how our memories work.

“The important thing is that being unable to remember something doesn’t necessarily mean the memory is lost.”

Need to jog your memory? An actual jog may help

To improve your memory, Dr Landowski recommends three things: exercise, sleep, and socialising.

“By increasing blood flow to the body, exercise delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the brain, it releases feel-good endorphins and growth factors that support the growth of new neurons,” Dr Landowski says.

She says to aim for 150 minutes of heart-pumping, sweat-inducing exercise per week.

“Socialising with people you like — especially when you engage in physical contact — releases a cocktail of neurotransmitters in your brain, which has an array of effects, including reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” she adds.

To do list on post-it notes
Memory tools and strategies, such as sticky notes and keeping to-do lists, can help.(Pexels: Anna Shvets)

Dr Osth recommends steering clear of things that permanently damage memories, “like drinking too much alcohol or sleeping poorly”.

“Most of the memory-related disturbances should become normal-ish when life circumstances return to normal.”

On the flip side, he adds, “when the pandemic ends, people may have an easier time remembering pre-pandemic memories, but have a harder time remembering pandemic memories”.

Dr Harris advocates using memory tools.

“If your memory is failing, outsource it to your lists, calendars, and smart phone,” she says.

“Part of the solution is recognising where you are having trouble remembering and consciously engaging strategies to address it — and recognising that we’ve all been through an ongoing major upheaval, and it is to be expected that we might be functioning in different ways [than] before.”

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