A new study finds that pretending in advance to carry out a needed task, in as much detail as possible, can increase the likelihood you will remember to do it.

Whether it is picking up something at the grocery store or remembering to take medication, prospective memory is a regular feature of daily life. And when prospective memory fails, it can be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s disease, according to researchers.

“Poor prospective memory can range from the vaguely annoying to life threatening, depending on the circumstances,” said Dr. Antonina Pereira from the University of Chichester, who led the study. “We wanted to confirm two things — that prospective memory deteriorates with age and that enactment techniques might support those with a poor prospective memory.”

In research published in the journal Neuropsychology, researchers studied the prospective memory performance of 96 participants, including patients with mild cognitive impairment between the ages of 64 and 87, healthy older adults between the ages of 62 to 84, and younger adults between the ages of 18 and 22.

The study, which also included researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, and the University of Lisbon in Portugal, looked at prospective memory performance before the introduction of an enhancement technique. They then compared it with performance after enhancement.

The technique used was encoded enactment, where subjects were encouraged to act out in their minds the activity they must remember to do, the researchers said.

Participants in all age groups reported improvement in prospective memory, but it was particularly marked in those older subjects with mild cognitive impairment, the study discovered.

The study’s findings suggests that encouraging people in this category to adopt enactment as a way to enhance prospective memory could result in them leading independent, autonomous lives for longer, the researchers say.

“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,” Pereira said. “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.”

Pereira offered a tip for overcoming poor prospective memory. “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.”

Source: University of Chichester

Photo: University of Chichester psychologists have studied prospective memory to accurately diagnose diseases of cognitive impairment. Credit: University of Chichester.