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Updated 10:00 AM June 21, 2004



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Imagery helps older people remember medical advice

A healthy dose of imagination helps older people remember to take medications and follow other medical advice, according to a study in the June issue of Psychology and Aging.

Researchers Linda Liu of the Institute for Social Research (ISR) and Denise Park of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that older adults who spent a few minutes picturing how they would test their blood sugar were 50 percent more likely to actually do these tests on a regular basis than those who used other memory techniques.

"This is not an expensive or time-consuming strategy that requires a great deal of training," says Liu, assistant research scientist at ISR. "By spending a few minutes thinking ahead about how they will integrate a behavior into their daily routine and imagining how they will achieve their goals, older people are much more likely to be successful at accomplishing what otherwise could be a daunting task."

For the study, Liu and Park taught 31 non-diabetic volunteers to do home blood glucose tests. The researchers chose people who didn't have diabetes in order to simulate the learning conditions faced by someone with a new diagnosis of the disease. The participants, ages 60 to 81, were assigned randomly to one of three groups and told to monitor their blood sugar levels four specific times daily. They were not allowed to use timers, alarms or other devices.

Those in the implementation group, defined by the investigators as an "imagination" intervention, spent one 3-minute session visualizing exactly what they would be doing and where they would be the next day when they were scheduled to test their blood sugar levels. Those in the "rehearsal" group repeatedly recited aloud the instructions for testing their blood. Finally, those in the "deliberation" group were asked to write a list of pros and cons for testing blood sugar.

During the next three weeks, participants in the implementation group remembered 76 percent of the time to test their blood sugar at the right times of the day compared to an average of 46 percent in the other two groups. Those in the implementation group were far less likely to go an entire day without testing than those in the other two groups.

"This study shows it's a powerful and incredibly inexpensive technique with potentially lasting effects," Park says.

Park suspects that using imagination may be more effective than other techniques because it relies on automatic memory, a primitive component of memory that doesn't decline with age.

Using this technique, a person might, for example, imagine taking his pills right after drinking a morning glass of orange juice. The next day at breakfast, taking a sip of orange juice will cue him automatically to take the medication.

"It's not an explicit thought," Park says. "It's not as if you think, 'Ah, ha! I remember to take my pills now.' It's more that the orange juice provides an unconscious prompt to, 'Take your meds, take your meds.'"

The research was supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a part of the National Institutes of Health. NIA scientists say further studies will be needed to replicate the findings more generally.

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