"Imagination" Helps Older People Remember to Comply with Medical Advice

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A healthy dose of "imagination" helps older people remember to take medications and follow other medical advice, reports a new study supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), a part of the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers found older adults who spent a few minutes picturing how they would test their blood sugar were 50 % more likely to actually do these tests on a regular basis than those who used other memory techniques. The findings by Linda Liu, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan, and Denise Park, Ph.D., of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, appear in the June 2004 issue of Psychology and Aging.

"This is an innovative study. It presents an unusual but apparently very effective way to use imagination as a memory tool to help older adults more successfully follow medical instructions," Jeffrey Elias, Ph.D., of the NIA's Behavioral and Social Research Program said. "The best medical care in the world isn't much good if a patient can't or won't follow through. The genius of this method is that it requires less conscious effort than other memory methods. So, it can be easily learned and applied."

Thirty-one non-diabetic volunteers aged 60-81 were placed in 3 different groups and were taught to do home blood glucose tests. 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.

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Over the next 3 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.

Dr. Park suspects 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, you might, for example, imagine taking your pills right after you drink your morning glass of orange juice. The next day at breakfast taking a sip of orange juice provides an unconscious prompt to "automatically" cue a person to take his or her medication.

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For more information, please go to: http://www.nih.gov/news/pr/jun2004/nia-04.htm

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