improve memoryWhen you consider what’s happening in most people’s lives in their 40s and 50s, it’s no wonder they struggle to remember everything they’d like. At this point in life, people often find themselves tending to aging parents and raising adolescent children all at the same time their careers are peaking.

Complicating matters, the information age has resulted in a nearly constant stream of input into our brains. It seems only natural for us to forget things as we continually try to cram in so much information.

Memory loss — or slowed retrieval — can affect even the most mundane aspects of life. From forgetting where you left your sunglasses (only to find them on top of your head) to blanking on a good friend’s name, the lapses can range from being merely annoying to time-consuming to enormously embarrassing.

Women may think their memory challenges are part of menopause-related hormone changes. Men and women alike may worry they are signaling impending dementia. Researchers are finding it’s not necessarily either. In fact, the latest studies suggest overall brain functioning remains consistent and strong in healthy people well into their senior years. Instead, much concern over midlife memory loss is actually self-induced. If you think your memory is slipping, you’ll tend to note more the times you forget.

That’s not to say the brain isn’t subject to aging like the rest of the human body, nor that it can be taken for granted. Neuroimaging studies do show gradual tissue loss in the memory-related portions of the brain over the years. But there’s good news to accompany those reports.

First, several studies have shown that declines in cognitive abilities are small and gradual. One study, the Seattle Longitudinal Study of Adult Intelligence, found declines generally do not occur before age 60 and only small changes are observed in people age 74 and older.

Second, cognitive declines can be reversed. Researchers have recently discovered that nerve endings in the brain can form new connections where there weren’t any before.

That leads many adults to ask the obvious question of how to maintain or build cognitive function. As with virtually every other aspect of aging well, a healthy diet, physical exercise and stress reduction have been shown to be paramount.

It also helps to complement physical exercise with mental workouts. Instead of zoning out with television, for example, read a thought-provoking book, do a crossword or Sudoku puzzle, play bridge or learn a new language. The key is to engage in activities that involve reasoning, memory and/or speed of processing.

You can also do simple things, such as using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth or (attempt to) play tennis. And incorporating activities that engage multiple senses at a time can also help.

In the meantime, use memory aides, such as lists or digital voice recorders, employ mnemonic devices (word associations, rhymes, acronyms) and get organized. If you consistently sort the mail in the same location, keep the keys in the same place and keep all your computer passwords in one easy-to-reach notebook, you’ll have less to remember.

The “use it or lose it” adage definitely applies to memory and brain function. Exercise your body and brain routinely, and you’ll be glad to forget all about those embarrassing senior moments.

As published in the June 2008 Edition of the Holmen Courier and Onalaska Community Life.