Ask the Doctor: Short-Term Memory Strategies…Antidepressant Side Effects…Sleep Problem Causes

Q: Is it possible to “catch up on sleep” or is that just a myth or an excuse to sleep in?

A: As a side note, while it’s possible to make up for lost sleep, you can’t really make a big deposit in your sleep account to get you through the lean times. Loading up on sleep for a few nights can’t carry you through subsequent nights of little or no sleep. The result is just likely to be a disrupted sleeping pattern. If you think of your sleep as a bank account, every night you go without getting the amount of sleep you need is like taking money out of your account. It’s easy to accumulate a sizable “sleep debt” over time. The good news is that, like other debts, this one can be repaid. But it can’t be done in one 12-hour sleep marathon if you have gone weeks or months with insufficient sleep. The way to repay yourself is by adding an extra hour or so to your current sleep schedule. Think of it as paying yourself back in sleep installments. For many people, it takes months of adjusted sleep patterns to get out of debt.

Most adults need about seven hours of sleep for optimal health. You may need six or eight or even 10 hours. Everyone’s sleep needs are different. Aim for at least seven hours a night, and if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, talk with your doctor or a sleep specialist. Your caffeine intake might need to be adjusted or you might need a different bedtime routine.

Q: I recently read where getting even mildly dehydrated can affect your mood, not just your physical health. Is that true?

A: Absolutely. And in the middle of another hot summer, it’s a good time to remember that staying properly hydrated is vital for the health of your mind and body. Every system in your body relies on adequate fluid levels to operate safely and effectively. That means you have to keep up with your intake of water and other fluids (not including alcohol and soda, which act as diuretics, reducing fluid levels in the body). Even the earliest stages of dehydration—before you feel thirsty—can affect your ability to concentrate and make decisions. You can become irritable and sluggish. Try to drink six to eight glasses of water throughout the day, and more if you are especially active. If you are frail, or have a condition such as heart failure that requires limited fluid intake, talk with your doctor about ways to hydrate safely.

Q: In general, I think I have a good memory—dates, places, details. But I seem to have a problem with names. Why is that?

A: You’re not alone in forgetting names or confusing the names of acquaintances, celebrities and others. It’s quite common to be able to describe someone’s appearance or recount biographical details about the person while the name remains on the tip of your tongue. There has actually been research suggesting that proper nouns—especially people’s names—are often harder to remember than other words. One possible explanation is that, aside from Cher, Madonna and a few others, a person’s name usually includes a first and last name, while most things are described with one word. So names simply require the recollection of more words. Another theory is that names often include unique sound combinations (such as actress Charlize Theron), which can make them harder to recall. One other possible reason for name recall challenges is visual overlap. When trying to recall the name of an actor, for example, you may see one person in your mind’s eye, but attach the name of a different actor who resembles him.

If your greater concern is remembering the names of new neighbors, for example, repeat their names when being introduced and use the names frequently at first to help cement them in your memory. Using mnemonic devices, such as assigning sound-alike words to a person’s name or coming up with melodies that include the person’s name, can help, too

—Editor-in-Chief Maurizio Fava, MD

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