Those little memory lapses we experience as we grow older can worry us. We’re introduced to someone but promptly forget their name. We look all over the place for our reading glasses, only to realize they are perched on our head. We save a document, but forget into which folder.
We might joke about “senior moments,” but of course, we worry. Could we be developing Alzheimer’s disease or another condition that affects our thinking and memory? The good news is, in most cases, memory lapses like this are perfectly normal as we grow older, representing an age-related change in memory function that begins around age 40. And we can take comfort in the fact that, in some respects, older brains are even more competent, with more of the qualities that we think of as “wisdom.”
Part of the problem, say experts, is that we simply have more information stored in our brains! It takes a little longer to find a piece of information as we accumulated a lifetime of memories.
Another change to be aware of is that our brains are less able to filter out “static” and clear out previous memories as we grow older. Multitasking becomes more challenging. An experiment performed by Concordia University in Quebec asked older and younger test subjects to perform a working memory task that included recalling and processing different pieces of information. Participants were shown a set of images and instructed to respond to each image in a certain way. The younger participants outperformed their older counterparts, because the seniors were more likely to offer the response that was appropriate to a previous image.
Head researcher Mervin Blair reported, “Basically, older adults are less able to keep irrelevant information out of their consciousness, which then impacts other mental abilities.”
What can seniors do to enhance short-term memory? Blair, who is now serving as a neuropsychology fellow at Parkwood Hospital in Ontario, suggested that focusing and reducing “mental clutter” may help. “Reduce clutter,” he said. “If you don’t, you may not get anything done.”
Here are five techniques that can help clear the clutter:
- Practice “mindfulness.” Take a class in meditation, listen to a relaxation tape, or try yoga or tai chi. These techniques can help even chronic multitaskers turn off a racing mind and focus better on one thought at a time.
- Turn off your gadgets. Nothing overloads our brains so much as our little electronic leashes that interrupt us in the middle of one task to focus on another. Go ahead, power down your smartphone for an hour—you’ll survive! And unless you are really paying attention, turn off the TV and radio talk shows. There is no use in adding a competing information stream.
- Listen to music to relax. Music can help us banish unwanted thoughts. To promote a tranquil state of mind, pick music that is calming and soothing. No matter what type of music you like, there are choices that will help you unwind. But here’s an important caveat: as we grow older, it’s harder to filter out background sounds. If you’re trying to concentrate on something, it’s probably best to turn off the music. Teens can study while music blares; older adults, not so much.
- Write things down and put them aside. Are you fretting about tomorrow’s tasks even though there is nothing you can do about them today? Do you work problems over and over in your mind, obsess about past events, or compile an ever-growing mental “to-do” list? Keep a notebook where you can write down the thoughts that are swirling around in your head. The list will still be there when you need it.
- Get some exercise and spend some time in nature. Physical activity is a great way to clear the mind, and spending time in green spaces provides a calming sense of perspective. Much research in “ecopsychology”—the relationship between human beings and the natural world—shows the benefits of being outdoors, whether it’s a walk in the woods or a cup of tea in the garden.
With a little practice, you’ll be able to move some of that useless clutter out of your mind, leaving room for things you really need.
If you continue to have concerns about your memory, be sure to discuss this with your healthcare provider. Early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and related conditions allows for the best possible treatment to slow the progression of memory loss. And it’s important to rule out reversible conditions that affect the memory, such as depression, chronic stress or the side effects of medications.