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Your memory ‘style’ may be influencing your health more than you think

Every family has a storyteller — perhaps a grandpa who has been entertaining children for decades with family lore or a grandma who knows just the right tale to tell to teach a lesson. Or maybe you’re the one who remembers all the fun times (and the hard times). But not everyone remembers things the same way, and according to a new study, the way you remember your life can impact your health. And it turns out that being a storyteller may not be such a good thing.

Watch any episode of Law & Order, and you’ll see all kinds of different “memory styles” in action. Some people love to tell long, detail-rich accounts, while others are strictly “just the facts, ma’am.” But it’s not just criminal suspects who can be divided into those with episodic (storytelling) or semantic (factual) memory type. We each favor one style over the other, and according to a new study published in the journal Cortex, which type you have can have different implications for your brain health.

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People with a strong episodic memory are those who can not only recall lots of autobiographical events but can also remember all the little details that go with them — like the time Dad accidentally served dog biscuits on the cheese-and-cracker tray at Thanksgiving and everyone ate them, thinking they were supposed to taste like chicken but secretly a little baffled as to why they were so dry and crunchy. (That’s a true story, by the way.) This type of memory increases medial temporal lobe connectivity to regions at the back of the brain involved in visual processes.

On the other hand, people with a strong semantic memory are the ones who know all the practical details. They can remember everyone’s birthday, the directions to get to all the birthday parties and what each person would like as a gift. This type of memory leads to higher medial temporal lobe connectivity to areas at the front of the brain involved in organization and reasoning.

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But strengthening one part of the brain may leave the other weak. This is a particular problem for storytellers, as their strong episodic memory may predispose them to Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive impairments as they age, according to the study.

“People who are used to retrieving richly detailed memories may be very sensitive to subtle memory changes as they age, whereas those who rely on a factual approach may prove to be more resistant to such changes,” said Brian Levine, Ph.D., lead author of the paper, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto.

This may also explain why people who are experiencing memory loss often lose the small, factual details first but will retell stories from their past over and over again.

But storytellers shouldn’t despair just yet. Knowing you have this potential weakness can help you work on strengthening other aspects of your mind while you still have it. So take the opportunity to learn a new hobby outside of your current skill set, like orienteering or math. Not only will you learn something new, but it could help preserve your memory of all the stories you love so much. At the very least, your family members will appreciate you remembering their birthdays!

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