Can’t remember if you’ve popped your pills today or not? The next time you go to take your medications, try patting your head, tapping your toe or holding one arm behind your back while you do it.
Research shows that doing something strange, unusual or even silly doubles the odds that your brain will remember completing a routine task.
Many people struggle to recall what scientists call habitual prospective memory tasks – things that must be repeatedly remembered as part of a daily routine.
And once forgotten, a task is likely to be repeated. In the case of medication, that can be dangerous.
“It’s not forgetting to take the medication. It’s monitoring and remembering whether or not you have actually executed it,” says Mark McDaniel, PhD, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis. “You know you are supposed to take it, but you can’t remember if you really did.”
For this study, published in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology and Cognition, McDaniel and his team wanted to see if they could find ways to help older adults avoid repeating a habitual task by making it them more memorable.
Participants, 57 older adults and 31 younger adults, were asked to push the F1 key on a computer keyboard every time they recognized a given letter or a number that flashed on the screen. One of the study groups put a hand on their heads whenever they pushed the F1 key. The other did not.
Seniors committed more repetition errors compared to the younger participants. But those who put their hand on their heads while completing the task made significantly fewer errors than their counterparts.
“It reduced the errors by about half,” McDaniel says.
That leads to the obvious question: Do you have to do a different movement every day, so the silly movement itself doesn’t become something you start to forget? Scientists didn’t test that, but think it may be the case.
They suggest alternating the thing you do to jog your memory – like standing on one leg on Monday, patting your head on Tuesday and pulling your ear on Wednesday – so it doesn’t become forgettable, too.
“This little technique is very, very effective and easy to use and straightforward and clearly helps people remember whether they’ve performed that task,” McDaniel says.
Barbara Messinger-Rapport, MD, PhD, is director of the Center for Geriatric Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. She says this data probably needs to be regarded as preliminary, but she does think the idea has the ability to help some people.
She offers this additional tip for remembering medication: “Patients should connect taking their pills with something else at that time. It doesn’t necessarily have to be tapping your head. But maybe you don’t brush your teeth or raise your blinds until you take your pills,” Dr. Messinger-Rapport says.
She says in her experience people tend to forget to take pills more often than they double up. But either way, she says it’s a problem that could be helped by this technique.