Have you ever gone to another room to fetch an item only to forget what you were after? Do you sometimes forget the names of close friends? Do you ever look up a telephone number, then forget it before you can finish dialing? Have you ever known an elderly person who could tell you that June 3, 1906 was a hot, sunny Tuesday, but can’t remember what they had for today’s breakfast?
Sometimes these events make us laugh but sometimes they cause us to worry. We wonder if we are losing our memories or if Alzheimer’s is claiming yet another victim. Many of us begin to believe that short-term memory loss is inevitable but that long-term memory remains stable until we become senile. Some think the elderly are preoccupied with the past because the present is too difficult to remember. Others associate memory loss with aging brains, the loss of brain cells, and poor processing ability.
Research shows, however, that aging does not produce an across-the-board decline in memory functions. We apparently do not lose significant numbers of brain cells as we age, and older folks have good reason to focus on the past. In fact, of those in their 80’s and 90’s, about 80 percent remain free of serious memory loss. We have to keep in mind, however, that some memory loss is normal. Our brains undergo changes just like the rest of our body.
Nevertheless, people are often too quick to suspect that memory lapses are signs of deterioration. But small memory losses, slight confusion, or occasional forgetfulness throughout life may simply signal an overload of information or a lack of proper attention and concentration. As we age, thinking processes become slower, memory strategies are used less, ignoring distractions becomes more difficult, and more cues are needed to recall something previously learned. Some older folks may not see a need to remember as they have simply grown accustomed to letting others remember for them. Without the intellectual stimulation of family, career, friends, and interests, many elderly persons simply get out of the practice of processing information to memory.
It is also evident that a multitude of lifestyle factors influences the memory process, as well as the health of the elderly person. Forced retirement, losing family or friends, less physical agility, economic restrictions, passive activities like TV, poorer eyesight and hearing, social isolation, misuse of medications, depression, and disease can all play a role in the loss of memory retention and recall.
It is suggested that the best way to keep your memory in shape is to continually challenge it. Research has shown that nerve cells continue to grow at any age in response to intellectual enrichment of all sorts: travel, crossword puzzles, woodwork, playing music, painting, etc. – anything that stimulates the brain with novelty and challenge. Researchers have also found that older adults who lived active lives in their middle years either remained stable or showed improvement in mental abilities after age 60. Those who didn’t have very stimulating lives showed a marked decline. It is no wonder that 77-year-old John Glenn is a hero in an aging population.
Researchers have also found that short-term memory loss only becomes a problem if we abandon the memory retention skills that we have used for decades; skills like proper focus and attention, rehearsal of desired data, and the use of effective memory cues. A preoccupation with the past is seen as healthy reminiscence and a natural process in the integration of a lifetime of living. What we retain and recall depends on what skills we employ to remember. Our memory thus becomes a function of our ability to remain intellectually stimulated throughout our lifetime. As far as our memories are concerned, we do not have to grow old.