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Trying to Remember What You Forgot?

Memory loss: how to recharge your brain.

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keys, hand, memory loss, forgetting, illustrator, Juanjo Gasull
Juanjo Gasull
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My husband says he’s going to the kitchen to get a glass of water. Minutes later, he’s back without a glass of water. “Where’s the water?” I ask.  He sighs. “I walked into the kitchen and couldn’t remember what I was there for."

A friend and I are discussing our recent favorite books. I mention one I just finished, but for the life of me, I cannot remember the author’s name. “Oh, don’t worry,” my friend consoles me. “You’re just having a senior moment.”

We are both in our mid-60s. Another friend of a certain age worries that her husband has become increasingly forgetful. He recently complimented her on a long, flowing skirt she was wearing, asking, “Is that new?” even though she’s worn it weekly since they began dating in 1985. He also goes blank on the names of friends they have known for decades.

“Do you think I need to get him tested?” she asks me.

As we inch beyond our 50s, these kinds of memory lapses become more common, and so do our mounting fears that they could signal the first step toward dementia. Forgetting a word, not remembering where you stashed the keys — these incidents can seem ominous. Even rigorous sex or other physical activity can trigger a sudden episode of memory loss. (Don’t ask me how I personally know this.) The temporary condition is called transient global amnesia and it’s rare but more likely in people ages 50 to 70. 

Then again, maybe the reason we’re so worried about our memory slips is that we’re constantly hearing the message that age equals mental decline. Ageist terms like “senior moment” (as if people in their 20s and 30s never forget anything) and the preponderance of negative stereotypes in the media about older adults can undermine our mental health. It may even undermine our memory skills, according to psychologist Sarah Barber.

“Forgetfulness can happen at any age, but we interpret why it happens differently,” says Barber, an assistant professor of psychology at Georgia State University who studies ageism’s effect on memory. “When younger people forget something, we often assume that it’s due to a lack of effort or being distracted. When older people forget something, we assume it’s due to their lack of memory ability.”

Barber adds that her research shows that “people who internalize negative attitudes about aging actually have worse [memory] outcomes as they get older.”

Frankly, I’d like to blame all my brain blips on ageism, but there are a variety of other reasons for our lack of recall as we get older. The main culprit is a slowdown in mental processing speed — meaning the time it takes us to react to or retrieve information, or to complete a mental task.

Mental processing slows with age, no matter how experienced or skillful we are. That’s why, as studies show, older chess players, regardless of their skill level, will be slower to select the best move against an opponent than younger players. It’s why the mandatory retirement age for air traffic controllers, who need to be able to react quickly, is 56.

On the other hand, like wine, some things in our brain improve with age — namely our store of knowledge, facts and skills, as well as our ability to detect patterns and make accurate predictions over time.

As neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues in a recent essay in The New York Times titled, “Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone is Wrong”: “If you’re going to get an X-ray, you want a 70-year-old radiologist reading it, not a 30-year-old one.”

Research also indicates that our memory and thinking skills change throughout our life span and may change at different ages for different people. For some, certain abilities may begin declining around the time of their high school graduation, while others don’t peak until their 40s or beyond, as Harvard researchers reported in a 2015 study on the rise and fall of different cognitive abilities in the journal Psychological Science.

We may even be able to grow new brain neurons (the cells that transmit information, well into our 70s or older), as a 2018 study of brain samples, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, suggests. And the good news for older adults who want to sustain fitness of the brain is the proliferation of lifelong learning and continuing education programs offered by colleges and universities.

Then there are those who seem to stay sharp effortlessly well into their 90s. My father, who just turned 96, took computer and accounting classes when he retired around age 70. He now handles accounts payable and other financial record-keeping for my brother’s advertising firm and calls and reminds me of changes in the tax law that I might want to consider.

Others may not be as fortunate as my dad, due to a range of causes — from medication side effects to vitamin deficiency to hearing loss or depression to more serious conditions like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. And then, of course, there’s the coronavirus pandemic, resulting in, for many of us, social isolation, loneliness and fear of mortality — all possible risk factors for memory problems. Indeed, the pandemic has contributed to 28 percent of older women reporting increased anxiety or depression, according to a July 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation poll.

So how do we recharge our brain and maybe even our memory skills? The experts have some suggestions below.

Get regular physical activity

Better yet, do it outdoors. A 2019 study of adults ages 55 to 85 found that even a single session of moderate exercise may increase activity in portions of the brain involved in long-term memory. As an added bonus, exercising outside provides mental health benefits, improving our mood and reducing stress.

Adjust your diet

Cutting back on red meat and sugar and increasing plant-based foods may help. The Mediterranean diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and beans has been linked to reduced risk of developing memory and thinking problems and some forms of dementia.

Still worried?

If you’re wondering if those memory lapses are normal aging or something more serious to discuss with your doctor, the National Institute on Aging has a helpful online guide called Memory, Forgetfulness and Aging: What’s Normal and What’s Not?

As for me, I’m spending more time these days picking my dad’s brain about my tax return and less time fretting about the little and not-so-little things that just happen to slip my mind.

Find out more about how to protect your brain health at AARP’s Staying Sharp

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