Memory in Retirement

January 31, 2013

It is a fact: the older you get, there more there is to remember (if you are 60 it is at least three times as much as a 20 year old).  To carry this heavy load, you need to work at it, and it is not that hard to do once you “set your mind to it.”

As we age, research tells us it is normal for us to require more effort to learn new things, to multitask and to summon up names and vocabulary.  It is not clear why that is the case, although a study reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience in January 2013 suggests at least part of the reason may be due to normal age-related shrinkage in the medial prefrontal cortex region of the brain. This region is located behind the middle of the forehead and helps maintain good quality sleep. Good sleep helps the brain in its retention and consolidation of new knowledge, skills and experience.

The study found that senior participants in the study had medial prefrontal cortexes about one-third smaller than study participants who were in the 20s. The seniors were also less effective than younger participants in a memory test of new information and even less effective upon retesting after one night’s sleep. So while it is normal for seniors to need to apply greater effort to learn new things, it appears declining sleep quality may be adding to the challenge.

However, absent illness or injury, our memory of how to perform tasks and our general knowledge remain unimpaired as we grow older.  It also appears to be true that our ability to reason remains healthy and the wisdom gained from decades of experience certainly enables us to make better decisions than when all those raging hormones got in the way.

So, absent illness or injury, while our mental skills may slow some, there is no reason to fear “losing it” if we keep our minds engaged.  What actions can we take to keep our memory functioning effectively?

“Use it or lose it” applies to our minds as well as our bodies.  Studies have shown that our mental skills can be kept in shape through activities that keep our minds active and which challenge us to think in new ways.  Learning a new language or music theory, or how to play a musical instrument have all been shown to be very helpful.

Try doing things with your left hand that you would normally do with your right (if you are right-handed) and vice versa.  (Brushing your teeth is an interesting place to start; shaving is not).

Solving puzzles such as crossword, jigsaw, sudoku; playing board and card games, especially if you vary the games you play and take the time to learn new ones; participating in athletic activities, dancing, reading, improving your computer skills, socializing, can all be helpful.

Take good care of yourself physically.  Don’t smoke.  Be moderate in your use of alcohol.  Stay physically active – what’s good for the heart is good for the brain.

Be organized.  If you have a place for everything (like keys) and put things in their places they are a lot easier to find.

Keep and use a calendar.

When you meet new people, repeat their names and try to find a way to associate their names with their faces or physiques.

If you are going to be visiting with a group of people you know, review their names and the last time you saw them before the visit.

If you can’t remember something right away, relax (tension gets in the way), focus (no multitasking) and concentrate.

The existence of forgetting has never been proved:  We only know that some things don’t come to mind when we want them. – Friedrich Nietzsche

R. Kevin Price

© 2008-2013 R.K. Price