Stay ahead of age-related changes in thinking skills by making the most of your brain's memory process.
We all have moments of forgetfulness about where we put the keys, why we walked into a room, or what an object is called. Most likely, this reflects age-related changes in thinking skills. "In terms of brain function, everyone has a decline over time in all areas, with the exception of vocabulary," says Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist specializing in behavioral neurology and neuropsychiatry at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
How memory works
Memory involves three processes: encoding, recording, and retrieval. The brain receives and encodes (takes in) new information; the brain then records (stores) the information; finally, the brain retrieves information when you need it.
Many brain regions are involved in this process. For example, the cerebral cortex — the large outer layer of the brain — acquires new information as input from our senses. The amygdala tags information as being worthy of storage. Nearby, the hippocampus stores memories. And the frontal lobes help us consciously retrieve information.
The aging memory
Many people notice a difference in memory starting in their 50s. That's when age-related chemical and structural changes can begin in brain regions involved with memory processing, such as the hippocampus or the frontal lobes. These changes may slow processing speed, making it hard to recall familiar names or words.
Other factors may be at play as well. "Working memory — a mental scratch pad that allows us to use important information throughout the day — is susceptible to depression, anxiety, and stress," explains Dr. Salinas, "and a lack of sleep can affect the brain's retention and use of information."
A medication side effect may also affect memory. For example, if you use an anti-anxiety drug like clonazepam (Klonopin), its sedating side effects can make your brain less alert and more sluggish. This in turn makes it more challenging for your brain to carry out the essential encoding, recording, and retrieval steps of memory.
Dr. Salinas says addressing these problems first often helps improve memory.
Another way to boost memory is to make the most of the way it works. The following strategies may help.
1. Repeat what you hear out loud, such as someone's name, or an address, or a new idea. Repetition increases the likelihood you'll record the information and be able to retrieve it later. "With each repetition, your brain has another opportunity to encode the information," explains Dr. Salinas. "The connections between brain cells are reinforced, much like blazing a trail in the woods. The more you walk the same trail, the easier it is to walk it the next time."
2. Make a note of people you need to call, errands to run, and appointments. "We are much better at recognition than recall," Dr. Salinas explains. "With recognition, such as reading a list, you have additional hooks or hints that help you find the information you're looking for."
3. Make associations between old and new information. Connect a person's first name to something familiar. For example, if the person's name is Sandy, imagine that person on a beach. Or create a story around a shopping list. "Our brain is good at sequences, and putting things into a story helps. The more ridiculous, the more memorable it is. For example, if your list is milk, eggs, and bread, the story could be that you are having milk with Elvis over an egg sandwich," Dr. Salinas suggests.
4. Divide information into chunks, such as taking a long number and remembering it more like a phone number. "It's hard to store a long number," says Dr. Salinas, "but easier to store little bits through working memory." If you're trying to memorize a speech for a wedding toast, focus on getting only one sentence or idea down at a time, not the whole speech in one take.
When tricks don't help
Forgetting something minor from time to time is probably normal. It's not normal when memory changes interfere with day-to-day functioning. Dr. Salinas recommends that you talk to your doctor if you're making more mistakes than usual at work; having difficulty paying the bills; or having trouble completing tasks, cooking, emailing, or doing chores. But don't panic. "More often than not, there's a temporary or reversible cause behind your memory slips. Once that's taken care of, you can get back to your more usual remembering self," says Dr. Salinas.
Image: © zager/Thinkstock
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.