The many reasons for memory difficulties

Everyday memory difficulties are common and become more frequent with age. Dr Bridget Burmester talks to Jenna Ward about different ways to explain their cause.

Everyday memory difficulties can result from a combination of three factors: that kinds of tests used to measure the memory difficulties, a person’s emotional wellbeing and their brain speed. Research in this area by Massey University doctoral graduate Dr Bridget Burmester is the first of its kind in New Zealand.

She conducted a survey with 400 people and worked one-on-one with 94 people to look at their abilities in more detail.

“My results suggest that when clinicians or doctors are assessing age-related memory difficulties, it’s important for them to also assess the person’s emotional wellbeing. Even if it’s not severe or doesn’t qualify for an official diagnosis, it can still affect their memory.”

Dr Burmester was surprised by how common these kinds of everyday memory difficulties are. “I am so grateful to have had so many people keen to take part in my research, and willing to share personal details of their lives with me so that we can understand better how our brains work.”

The 32-year-old, originally from Whangarei, gained her Bachelor of Science with Honours in psychology, and undergraduate degrees in mathematics and linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington. She now lives in Lower Hutt with husband Dane, and they’re expecting their first child, a boy, in May. “It’s exciting and scary at the same time,” she laughs.

So what does she think about the phenomenon known as “baby brain”?

“I have noticed it a few times during my pregnancy actually. Just absent-mindedness or difficulty concentrating. Generally though, it’s nothing you wouldn’t expect given the extra work our bodies are doing, and that we would normally just brush it off without a second thought. I think it’s only because we have this construct of ‘baby brain’ that makes us think it’s down to that, when really we are probably just tired and a bit preoccupied.”

Dr Burmester says the phenomenon is quite similar to what she noticed when working with participants in her PhD research. “Often people worry about memory loss being a sign of age-related symptoms, when actually we don’t give ourselves enough credit for just having what is a really normal experience for our age, situation, job, current stress level and all those other circumstantial factors that influence how well we can remember things on any given day.”

Dr Burmester is currently working as a researcher for the Ministry of Social Development. “My background in psychology is central to my mission to improve New Zealand by making sure that the decisions we make are based on both sound research evidence and an understanding of what makes us all human.”

She has also recently begun teaching weight classes at Les Mills, after discovering group fitness classes around the same time that she began her PhD. “While doing my PhD was an amazing journey and I’m so glad I did it, it certainly came with its share of ups and downs. For me, attending gym classes was a great way to keep myself healthy, both physically and mentally.”