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Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong. That is the title of an encouraging, recently read article by Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist and author of Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives. Even 20-year-olds forget the simplest things he adds as a sub-title. He is 62 years old and admits being forgetful of names and what was searched for, just like us. But he says his long term memories are fully intact.

Turning personal, I admit that is just how my memory works: forget what I ate yesterday but remember so well a dané of 60 years ago. My sons comment favourably and admiringly on this fact of my remembering tiny details of long ago. My friends and I often palpitate with fear when we forget a name, a place, an event. Are our minds in danger? When the answer to the question: Don’t you remember…. is a perturbed shake of the head and disturbing thoughts. Is dementia coming on? Alzheimer’s near? According to Dr Levitin "This is widely understood to be a classic problem of aging. But as a neuroscientist, I know that the problem is not necessarily age-related. The 70-year-old worries about her brain health. This is not to say that Alzheimer’s and dementia-related memory impairments are fiction — they are very real — but every lapse of short-term memory doesn’t necessarily indicate a biological disorder."

Encouraging info

So here’s the very good news: "In the absence of brain disease, even the oldest older adults show little or no cognitive or memory decline beyond age 85 and 90, as shown in a 2018 study. Memory impairment is not inevitable."

Short-term memory contains the contents of your thoughts right now, and is easily disturbed or disrupted according to Dr Levitin. It depends on your actively paying attention to the items that are in the "next thing to do" file in your mind. But any distraction — a new thought, someone asking you a question, the telephone ringing — can disrupt short-term memory. Our ability to automatically restore the contents of the short-term memory declines slightly with every decade after 30, says Dr Levitin. He adds a comforting note by saying that even 20 year olds forget simple matters or what they intended to do and are very similar to how 70-year-olds act. The doctor explains this common phenomena by pointing out that the attitude to that bit of forgetting or memory lapse of the older to the younger is different. The older person will think dementia is a-coming; the younger resolves to be more mindful and perhaps cut down on reading at night and loss of sleep. That is perfectly so. When we were young and forgot to do some school homework, or run an errand delegated to us, we just apologized and brushed the lapse aside with a warning to oneself to not forget next time. But now we treat an act of forgetfulness as a sure sign of old age setting in and worse, go cold with fear with the A- word appearing. Like a minor lump or pain or stomach unsettlement brings on the C- word.

Some aspects of memory are supposed to actually get better as we age. For instance, our ability to extract patterns, regularities and to make accurate predictions improves over time because we’ve had more experience. "If you’re going to get an X-ray, you want a 70-year-old radiologist reading it, not a 30-year-old one," opines Dr Levitin. So maybe it’s better to make a channeled consultation with an older medical specialist than a young, recently re-qualified doctor!

Rational explanation

"So how do we account for our subjective experience that older adults seem to fumble with words and names? First, there is a generalized cognitive slowing with age — but given a little more time, older adults perform just fine. Second, older adults have to search through more memories than do younger adults to find the fact or piece of information they’re looking for. Your brain becomes crowded with memories and information. It’s not that you can’t remember — you can — it’s just that there is so much more information to sort through. A 2014 study found that this ‘crowdedness’ effect also shows up in computer simulations of human memory systems." Encouraging and complimentary too to the older person!

So called senior citizens sometimes wonder, leave alone worry, that a memory gathered and stored in the brain when ten years old is sharper than remembering and recalling a memory more recent. Odd, we surmise. It isn’t a peculiarity because we are one and the same person, and often we don’t feel much older. Speaking for myself, I seem to be stuck at the age of around 35.

( I won’t divulge how old I now am!) It is also, I suppose, that the incident or person remembered made a bigger and stronger impression than the incident or person one wants to recall from a couple of years ago. The mind was less crowded then, and perhaps impressions were stronger; the mind fresh and receptive, not jaded. The doctor does not mention all this but explains the memory phenomena as a person’s sensory receptors having been tuned to make those long ago events seem both important and vivid. He adds that experiencing new things is the best way to keep the mind young, pliable and growing — into our 80s, 90s and beyond.

Keep both body and mind active!

We keep hearing the above good advice almost ad nauseam. But it is golden advice. Be engaged is another admonition. Take an interest in what’s going on around you and also beyond your immediate ken. Of course not spying, or with gossipy intent.

Lots of older people spend much time on crossword puzzling, filling Sudoku columns, playing Scrabble, Bridge, even 304 where cards and numbers have to be remembered as a game goes on. Personally I feel the best is get together and indulge in say yoga or even play verbal games or just go on with: Don’t you remember? Can’t you recall that bod, that incident?

An interesting game would be to recall your farthest memory, meaning how far in your life can you go to really remember something. I remember my injuring my little finger and the brother just older than me, who later bullied me too, wiping my tears that day and sitting me down on the arm of the haansiputuwa in our verandah and placing a bread poultice around the red finger and bandaging it. I was less than two years of age. And that memory goes back many many decades! A bread poultice made by soaking a bit of bread in warm water and sprinkling sugar on it was our childhood panacea for all minor accidents. I don’t know how it cured cuts, bruises, scratches and minor crushes; but it did. Just as it drew thorns that had gone into bare feet running all over the place.

Buddhist advice

"Be mindful" is an admonition kindly given by meditation teachers, quoting the Buddha word. That is the best way of keeping one’s mind focused and thus not forgetting. If you are a mindful person you will never spend minutes, nay even hours, searching for your specs and getting increasingly perturbed. Mindfulness saves so much trouble and wasted time. And now with Dr Letivin’s encouraging info on how our memories work and that forgetting is not a definite sign of the onslaught of dementia, we can work towards being more mindful. Easy as breathing, a true meditator will say, but we ordinary folk have to work at it. Pays huge dividends. "’Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.’ This captures the essence of mindfulness: bringing our attention to the present moment - the only moment we can ever be sure of."

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