Understanding memory as we age

Published 5:35 pm Friday, September 15, 2017

It is a general misunderstanding that as we age we lose most, if not all, mental abilities and nothing can be done to stop it. However, research shows certain areas of thinking do show some deterioration as we age, while others remain constant.

Intelligence, memory and vocabulary and language are typically preserved with age while processing speed and attention may be affected by age. Intelligence, which includes information and experience developed over time, typically remains stable with age. With regard to memory, usually the ability to recall past events remains more established, while recent memory is more susceptible to being affected by aging. Sir Norman Wisdom stated, “As you get older three things happen: The first is your memory goes, and I can’t remember the other two.” My grandmother often says she and my grandfather live in a reflective age as they often sit and recall memories from days past more so than discussing current events. Vocabulary and language abilities are typically preserved with age. Individuals may find they take increased time with word finding (getting words out). The information is not lost, it just may take increased time to recover it.

Aging does play a role in our processing speed. This means that as we age, it may simply take more time to complete cognitive and motor tasks, not that the tasks cannot be completed. As John Wagner quoted: “Everything slows down with age, except the time it takes cake and ice cream to reach your hips.” Typically, individuals are still able to solve problems and reason through situations. We may see changes as we age when presented with newer problems as it may take increased time to find solutions. Attention to single tasks is typically preserved as we age. However, changes in divided attention may become apparent, such as watching TV and talking on the telephone. Individuals may find it to be more difficult to focus on two tasks at the same time.

Some factors may affect our brain aging, including medications, sensory changes (for example, hearing loss), health-related changes (for example, arthritis or pain) and changes in mood. There is hope, and there are things that can be done to attempt to prevent and/or maintain our brain function and compensation strategies for when changes do become apparent. Compensation for these age-related changes include low-stress levels, maintaining general good health (seeing doctor regularly), keeping our brains stimulated and using active strategies.

Active strategies one can use to compensate for age-related changes include:

  • Keeping routines (placing keys/items in same place every time)
  • Making lists (grocery lists, daily schedule)
  • Writing appointments on a calendar
  • Pill boxes/charts
  • Name associations when meeting new people
  • Phone reminders/calendar
  • Alarms on phone for medication times, etc.

Strategies one can use to keep the brain stimulated to prevent and/or maintain our brain function include:

  • Test your memory — make a list (generally within one category, for example, five fruits) then 30 minutes to an hour later attempt to recall what was on the list you made
  • Learn to play a musical instrument or join a choir
  • Solve math problems in your head — without using a calculator, pencil or paper, and to make it more challenging, do it while walking!
  • Take a cooking class or teach grandchildren how to cook
  • Learn a foreign language
  • Play cards
  • Create word pictures — picture the spelling of a word in your head (for example, stop) then think of other words that begin or end with the same letters (street, star, stand, etc.)
  • Draw a map from memory — drive to a new place, then when you get home, draw a map of the route you took
  • Improve hand-eye coordination — knitting, drawing, coloring, painting, puzzles, crossword puzzles, word searches
  • Learn a new sport
  • Apps for iPhone, iPad, Android, computer games and Lumosity (www.lumosity.com). Most are free!
  • Visit a senior center/church/social group and find out what they have to offer and socialize

Aging effects everyone differently. However, these strategies that may help compensate and/or prevent general cognitive decline in aging are good for anyone to implement.

If changes are noticed in memory and problem solving that are not just slower processing but rather different thinking, difficulty with problem solving, worsening word finding difficulty, and/or confusion with everyday tasks, then further evaluation by a medical doctor is recommended. There are certain things that are normal for aging and others that are not normal and require further evaluation.

Harris S. Harrell, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist at Vidant Beaufort Hospital.