Category: Health News

The Downside of Having an Almost Perfect Memory

Joey DeGrandis was about 10 years old when his parents first realized there was something special about his memory. “Someone would mention an event from years ago that we’d done as a family, and I’d casually say, ‘Oh, that was a Monday,’ or ‘that happened on June 20,’” says DeGrandis, who is now 33. “My mom would cross-reference it with old calendars she’d kept, and they were a little dumbfounded at how accurate I was.”

DeGrandis showed off his skill that year at a magic show at school, wowing his audience by correctly identifying the day of the week for any given date in recent history. And for the next 15 years or so, DeGrandis thought of his talent mostly as a neat party trick: not something everyone could do, but not something with much significance, either. He would later find that there are upsides—and surprising downsides—to having an almost perfect memory.

In 2010, when DeGrandis was 26, he saw a segment on 60 Minutes featuring a handful of people with a similar ability: a condition now know as highly superior autobiographical memory, or HSAM. “I was on a road trip with a friend and ended up in California, and I decided to go visit this doctor who was studying these people who seemed to be like me,” he says.

Identifying a rare ability

That doctor was James McGaugh, a research professor in neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine. McGaugh began studying HSAM in 2000, after a young woman named Jill Price contacted him about her memory “problem.”

Price, who would later become the first person to be diagnosed with HSAM, had complained that her extraordinary memory was a burden. “Whenever I see a date flash on the television (or anywhere else for that matter) I automatically go back to that day and remember where I was, what I was doing, what day it fell on and on and on and on and on,” she had written in an email to McGaugh. “It is non-stop, uncontrollable, and totally exhausting.”

By 2010, McGaugh and his colleagues had identified a few others with an uncanny ability to link calendar dates with events, both major news (like the Challenger explosion or Princess Diana’s death) and mundane personal details (like what they ate or what song they heard on the radio). After appearing on 60 Minutes, McGaugh received more than 600 emails and phone calls from people—like DeGrandis—who thought they might also have this ability.

Ultimately, only about 60 of those people were identified by McGaugh and his team as actually having HSAM. Even in the years since, and even with plenty of additional media coverage, less than 100 people have been diagnosed with the condition. “That shows you how rare it is,” says McGaugh, “that millions of people have heard about this, and yet we can only find a tiny number who fit the criteria.”

The pros and cons of never forgetting

DeGrandis, being one of those people, now participates in ongoing studies by McGaugh and other memory researchers. (In his everyday life, he works in marketing—in a job that has nothing to do with his special ability, he says.) He has enjoyed meeting others with HSAM and has been struck by the things they have in common.

DeGrandis says he’s struggled from depression and anxiety, which he believes may be linked to his inability to let certain things go. In getting to know other HSAM study participants, he’s learned this is a common theme.

“I consider myself lucky in that I’ve had a pretty good life, so I have a lot of happy, warm and fuzzy memories I can think back on,” he says. “But I do tend to dwell on things longer than the average person, and when something painful does happen, like a break-up or the loss of a family member, I don’t forget those feelings.”

Research also suggests that people with HSAM tend to have obsessive traits. “Some subjects, like Price, focused on orderliness,” McGaugh wrote in Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference, which was updated this year to include a chapter on HSAM. “Some were germ-avoidant, and some had hobbies that involved intense, focused and sustained efforts,” he added. It’s not known yet whether these traits are the result of their superior memory, or if both are caused by another underlying factor.

And while people with superior memories have an uncanny talent for linking dates and events, they do occasionally make mistakes. “Their memories are much more detailed than ours, and last for a longer period of time, but they’re still not video recordings,” says McGaugh. “Memory is a distracting process, and what we pull from our brains isn’t always entirely accurate.”

People with HSAM are also no better than normal when it comes to remembering things like faces or phone numbers. The ability is not the same as a so-called photographic memory, which allows people to vividly recall details from a scene they’ve only observed for a short time; nor is it the same as a talent held by competitive “memory athletes” who use mnemonic devices to remember long strings of data, for example.

“I’m not great with names, or with mundane details like whether I brushed my teeth today or where I put my keys,” says DeGrandis. “My mind is always moving and filled with so many other things, and maybe that contributes, ironically, to a poorer short-term memory.”

What science can learn from people with superior memories

Nearly two decades after identifying the first case of HSAM, there’s still a lot researchers don’t know about the condition. But there have been a lot of gains, as well.

“We now have a set of twins in the study, one who has this ability and one who doesn’t,” says McGaugh. “We also have a number of younger people—one as young as 8—with the ability. This proves that it’s not just present in mature adults, and it’s not something that is learned and rehearsed over time.”

The UC Irvine researchers also plan to conduct functional MRI scans on people in the HSAM study to see if their brains work differently while they are retrieving information. “I have colleagues in Rome who have started this functional imaging,” says McGaugh, “and we have some evidence that there are real differences we can hopefully learn a lot from.” Previous research using non-functional MRIs—which only depict anatomical structures and not active processes like blood flow—has already shown some basic structural differences between the brains of people with and without HSAM.

McGaugh says that understanding the neurobiology behind HSAM may provide new insights into how the brain stores and retrieves memories. It may even be useful in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia and memory loss, he says, although it’s too soon to definitively say if or how.

As for DeGrandis, he’s happy to lend his mind to science in the hopes that it will ultimately help people who have trouble remembering things—not forgetting them. And while he and others like him sometimes feel burdened by this special talent, DeGrandis is ultimately glad to have it. “It can be frustrating, but it’s also really wonderful to have easy access to happy memories,” he says. “I really try not to take that for granted.”

Eating Cheese Every Day May Actually Be Good for You

Cheese is typically considered more of an indulgence than a health food, but a new review of research suggests that it may not be as bad for you as once thought. In fact, people in the analysis who ate a little bit of cheese every day were less likely to develop heart disease or have a stroke, compared to those who rarely or never ate cheese.

Cheese, like other dairy products, contains high levels of saturated fat—which has been linked to high cholesterol, atherosclerosis and an increased risk of heart disease. (Recently, however, some nutrition experts believe that saturated fat is more benign.) But cheese also contains potentially beneficial ingredients like calcium, protein and probiotics, wrote the authors of the new paper, published in the European Journal of Nutrition.

To learn more about how long-term cheese consumption affects a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease, researchers from China and the Netherlands combined and analyzed data from 15 observational studies including more than 200,000 people. All but one of the studies excluded people with existing heart disease, and all but two tracked people for 10 years or more.

MORE: The Case for Eating Cheese is Stronger Than Ever

The researchers’ findings were “certainly different from what people might expect,” says Dr. Allan Stewart, director of aortic surgery at Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center, who was not involved in the new analysis. Overall, people who consumed high levels of cheese had a 14% lower risk of developing coronary heart disease and were 10% less likely to have a stroke than those who rarely or never ate cheese.

The relationship, however, was U-shaped rather than linear—meaning that higher quantities of cheese were not necessarily better. The people who had the lowest risks for heart disease and stroke were those who consumed, on average, about 40 grams a day—about the size of a matchbook. (According to the review, the average American eats about 42.5 grams a day.)

“This is not the same as eating a big slice of cheesy pizza every day,” says Stewart. He also cautions against reading too much into data that’s self-reported—as much of the data was—because people tend to over- or under-estimate their consumption of specific foods.

Stewart points out that the study was only able to find an association between cheese consumption and decreased risk of heart disease, rather than a cause-and-effect relationship. It could be that people who eat cheese on a daily basis are healthier overall, or have more disposable income and higher socioeconomic statuses.

But it’s also possible that cheese has beneficial qualities that offset the negative impact of its high saturated fat content, says Stewart. “Cheese can be high in probiotics, which tend to put you in less of an inflammatory state,” he says. Cheese also contains conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), an unsaturated fatty acid that may increase the amount of of HDL “good” cholesterol and decrease “bad” LDL levels.

“There is some evidence that cheese—as a substitute for milk, for example—may actually have a protective effect on the heart,” says Stewart. “No one’s saying you should definitely go out and eat 40 grams of cheese a day. But on the upside, a bit of cheese on a cracker doesn’t sound unreasonable.”

The study did not look at different types of cheeses, and Stewart says more research is needed to know whether certain varieties hold more health benefits (or risks) than others. Overall, though, the news is good for cheese lovers.

“We’re always are searching for ways to minimize heart disease and reduce atherosclerosis,” he says. “It’s promising to find that something that actually tastes good—and pairs well with a nice glass of red wine—may offer some protection, as well.”

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