As we grow older, we all start to notice some changes in our ability to
Maybe you've gone into the kitchen and can't remember why, or can't
recall a familiar name during a conversation. You may even miss an appointment
because it slipped your mind. Memory lapses can occur at any age, but
we tend to get more upset by them as we get older because we fear they're
a sign of dementia, or loss of intellectual function. The fact is, significant
memory loss in older people isn't a normal part of aging—but
is due to organic disorders, brain injury, or neurological illness, with
Alzheimer's being among the most feared.
Most of the fleeting memory problems that we experience with age reflect
normal changes in the structure and function of the brain. These changes
can slow certain cognitive processes, making it a bit harder to learn
new things quickly or screen out distractions that can interfere with
memory and learning. Granted, these changes can be frustrating and may
seem far from benign when we need to learn new skills or juggle myriad
responsibilities. Thanks to decades of research, there are various strategies
we can use to protect and sharpen our minds. Here are seven you might try.
1. Keep learning
A higher level of education is associated with better mental functioning
in old age. Experts think that advanced education may help keep memory
strong by getting a person into the habit of being mentally active. Challenging
your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that
help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among
them. Many people have jobs that keep them mentally active, but pursuing
a hobby or learning a new skill can function the same way. Read; join
a book group; play chess or bridge; write your life story; do crossword
or jigsaw puzzles; take a class; pursue music or art; design a new garden
layout. At work, propose or volunteer for a project that involves a skill
you don't usually use. Building and preserving brain connections is
an ongoing process, so make lifelong learning a priority.
2. Use all your senses
The more senses you use in learning something, the more of your brain will
be involved in retaining the memory. In one study, adults were shown a
series of emotionally neutral images, each presented along with a smell.
They were not asked to remember what they saw. Later, they were shown
a set of images, this time without odors, and asked to indicate which
they'd seen before. They had excellent recall for all odor-paired
pictures, and especially for those associated with pleasant smells. Brain
imaging indicated that the piriform cortex, the main odor-processing region
of the brain, became active when people saw objects originally paired
with odors, even though the smells were no longer present and the subjects
hadn't tried to remember them. So challenge all your senses as you
venture into the unfamiliar. For example, try to guess the ingredients
as you smell and taste a new restaurant dish. Give sculpting or ceramics
a try, noticing the feel and smell of the materials you're using.
3. Believe in yourself
Myths about aging can contribute to a failing memory. Middle-aged and older
learners do worse on memory tasks when they're exposed to negative
stereotypes about aging and memory, and better when the messages are positive
about memory preservation into old age. People who believe that they are
not in control of their memory function are less likely to work at maintaining
or improving their memory skills and therefore are more likely to experience
cognitive decline. If you believe you can improve and you translate that
belief into practice, you have a better chance of keeping your mind sharp.
4. Economize your brain use
If you don't need to use mental energy remembering where you laid your
keys or the time of your granddaughter's birthday party, you'll
be better able to concentrate on learning and remembering new and important
things. Take advantage of calendars and planners, maps, shopping lists,
file folders, and address books to keep routine information accessible.
Designate a place at home for your glasses, purse, keys, and other items
you use often. Remove clutter from your office or home to minimize distractions,
so you can focus on new information that you want to remember.
5. Repeat what you want to know
When you want to remember something you've just heard, read, or thought
about, repeat it out loud or write it down. That way, you reinforce the
memory or connection. For example, if you've just been told someone's
name, use it when you speak with him or her: "So, John, where did
you meet Camille?" If you place one of your belongings somewhere
other than its usual spot, tell yourself out loud what you've done.
And don't hesitate to ask for information to be repeated.
6. Space it out
Repetition is most potent as a learning tool when it's properly timed.
It's best not to repeat something many times in a short period, as
if you were cramming for an exam. Instead, re-study the essentials after
increasingly longer periods of time — once an hour, then every few
hours, then every day. Spacing out periods of study is particularly valuable
when you are trying to master complicated information, such as the details
of a new work assignment. Research shows that spaced rehearsal improves
recall not only in healthy people but also in those with certain physically
based cognitive problems, such as those associated with multiple sclerosis.
7. Make a mnemonic
This is a creative way to remember lists. Mnemonic devices can take the
form of acronyms (such as RICE to remember first-aid advice for injured
limbs: Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation) or sentences (such as the
classic "Every good boy does fine" to remember the musical notes
E, G, B, D, and F on the lines of the treble clef).