Aging and Memory: What is normal? What is not?
As summer draws to a close, kids will come in from playing Pokémon Go and head back to school. Others of us will marvel at the impressive ability of the young brain to quickly learn, remember and shift gears. We might even be a little jealous. Because several aspects of memory worsen with normal aging, including learning, nonverbal memory and multitasking.
With age comes increased difficulty in learning new information, particularly in larger chunks, such as a long list of items or a span of numbers greater than seven digits. (Luckily, there are apps for that.) Older people tend not to learn as quickly as younger people, either. The ability to recall nonverbal information, including faces and pictures, also diminishes with aging. So it becomes harder and harder over the years to recognize someone you haven’t seen in a while. Spatial orientation skills also decline. Remembering the small stuff is harder, too—minor details such as why on earth you walked into that room. (If it had been for something major, you probably would have remembered.)
Multitasking is tough at any age, but worsens as one grows older. But there is a cure: DON’T MULTITASK! Make the most of attention and concentration in supporting memory functions:
- Focus on one thing at a time.
- Break a large or complex project into smaller parts.
- Utilize organizational techniques. There’s an app for that. In fact, there are many apps for that. But you can also go old school. Write down each project that you need to accomplish onto an index card and stack the cards in order of importance. Some people like lists instead of, or in addition to, the index card method. (Only it’s best to type or write out such lists, rather than trying to memorize them!)
Aging isn’t all bad. With maturity comes wisdom. As you age, attention, long-term memory, and the ability to learn and recall verbal information tend to remain relatively stable. Older people excel at connecting ideas and remembering the gist of something, such as the theme of a novel or article. So-called “crystallized” memory skills are also often maintained. Therefore, someone practiced in reading and recalling recipes, maps or music stands a good chance of retaining such abilities.
New research presented at this summer’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference showed that people whose work involved complex tasks or thinking had a reduced risk of cognitive decline or dementia, even in the face of poor diet or cardiovascular disease. In addition, a cognitive training program further reduced the risk of developing cognitive decline or dementia. This study adds to the wealth of evidence showing the benefits of mental activity and cognitive reserve.
So here’s your homework assignment to maintain your memory: Keep doing. And learning! Recess is important, too. Whether you play Pokémon Go or partake in other mental, physical or social activities, stay interested, engaged and active, everyone!
By Anne M. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D.