Staying young at heart may work to improve memory

July 3, 2019

[This is the second of two columns about memory and aging.]

The difference between normal and abnormal memory difficulties comes down to this: If you forget a name or where you left your keys, you're probably OK. If you can't remember how to brush your teeth, you need medical attention.

Here are more memory problems that aren't part of normal aging:

• Noticeable deterioration of memory over several months
• Repeating stories you told only minutes before, or asking the same questions over and over
• Inability to keep track of what you did earlier in the day
• Forgetting how to do things you've done many times
• Getting lost in a familiar place
• Unexplained mood changes
• Forgetting common words when speaking or using the wrong words such as “phone” for “TV remote”
• Difficulty following directions
• Trouble deciding
• Difficulty handling money.

That old saw about staying young at heart apparently works to improve your memory. 

According to one study, older people who believe their age diminished their memory may be undermining their mental abilities. The study was done at North Carolina State University. The researchers worked with about 100 adults in two groups in their 60s and over 70. Participants were asked to do a series of tasks involving arithmetic and memorization. The researchers told some of those tested that their age might affect the test results. The study found that members of this group did worse than those who weren't influenced by the testers.

What does aging really do to your brain? We begin to lose brain cells slowly in our 20s. The body also starts to make lower amounts of brain chemicals. Aging may affect memory by changing the way the brain stores and retrieves information.

Your short-term and remote memories aren't usually affected by aging. But your recent memory may be affected. That's why you forget where you put your keys two hours ago.

The following are some techniques you can use to help you remember things:

• Put important items, such as your keys, in the same place every time. When I've lost my car keys, I've found them in the weirdest places. (I'm listing this one first because it works every time for me.) 
• When you can't think of a word, go through the alphabet in your mind. When you get to the first letter of the word, you might recall it.
• Jotting appointments and reminders on a calendar helps. Most cellphones have a calendar in them. I put everything I have to remember in my cell.
• Make lists for everything – shopping, chores, items to take when traveling.
• Rely on routines. If you associate lunch with taking your medicine, it will help you remember. Associations are important for remembering other things, such as a route to a friend's house.
• When you are introduced to someone, repeat the person's name to yourself several times.

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