Finding Ways to Keep Your Brain Nimble in Older Age

New memory techniques and challenging mental activities may help prevent age-related cognitive decline.

If you’re worried that you’re losing your mental edge as you grow older, here is some good news. Recent research suggests that older adults can boost their memory performance by taking advantage of a decline in their ability to tune out distractions.

An intriguing preliminary study has found strong evidence that using a tactic called distraction learning, which utilizes the tendency of older individuals to process irrelevant information along with relevant information in the environment, can restore older adults’ memory functioning to levels comparable to that of younger individuals.

In the research study, 200 older adults and a group of younger adults with an average age of 20 were asked to memorize a list of 20 words, and immediately tested on their recall. The participants then performed a second task in which they spent 15 minutes looking at a series of pictures and indicating which ones matched the preceding picture.

 Participants were instructed to ignore a mix of nonsense words and 10 words from the earlier memorization list that were incorporated into the picture task. Finally, participants were given a surprise test of their ability to recall the words they had memorized earlier. Compared to younger participants, the older participants did worse on the initial word recall task.

Distraction advantage

However, in the final test, the older participants performed at the same level as the younger participants in their ability to recall the 10 words that were randomly interspersed with the drawings. These findings suggest that the older participants had picked up on and benefited from the distractors to improve their recollection of the memorized words, and that “repeatedly presenting items as non-target information—that is as distraction—minimizes and even eliminates age-related forgetting,” the researchers wrote in a report in the Feb. 21, 2013 online issue of Psychological Science.

“It is well known that the older brain has difficulty ignoring distractions, and this research suggests that, in certain situations, older adults might turn that to their advantage,” says Chief Neuropsychologist Janet Sherman, PhD, Clinical Director of the Psychology Assessment Center at MGH. “Because older people don’t filter out information as well as younger people do, they are able to pick up on information that to younger people might seem like a distraction, and use that information in new situations. They have a broader focus that includes seemingly irrelevant cues that might be used to help trigger memory.

“For example, spotting that sticky note on the refrigerator as you’re heading out the door for an appointment might remind you that you need to pick up the dry cleaning. You don’t need to read the note to pick up the memory cue. A younger person might be more mentally focused on the specific task at hand—getting to the appointment—miss the sticky note altogether, and forget the dry cleaning.”

To take advantage of your ability to absorb irrelevant cues, think of ways to use distractors to help you remember tasks, Dr. Sherman advises. For example, you might leave your empty cereal box on your countertop to remind you to pick up a new box of cereal at the supermarket, or place a photo of your grandson in a conspicuous spot to remind you that you need to pick him up after his play date.

Other memory-boosters

In addition to taking advantage of the tendency to focus more broadly to help circumvent age-related forgetfulness, Dr. Sherman suggests trying these other approaches to help power up an aging memory and put your brain through its paces:

  • Actively seek mental challenges: Research suggests that, just as with the body, the brain needs regular workouts. Studies show that staying mentally active can help prevent the brain from growing flabby over the years by enhancing blood and oxygen flow to the brain, promoting cell growth, fostering new and stronger connections between brain cells and making the brain more efficient and nimble. Keeping your gray cells—and your memory abilities—in top shape requires flexing your mental muscles regularly through intellectually demanding tasks such as working on puzzles and brain-teasers, memorizing your friends’ telephone numbers or birthdays instead of relying on written reminders, learning your favorite jokes or poems by heart, or adding new words to your vocabulary.
  • Break your habits: Routine activities can dull the brain. Try to do something completely different—and fun—every day to shake your brain out of its complacency. Some examples: Travel to places you’ve never visited, take a new route home from the movies, explore an unfamiliar shop, or join a book club. Afterwards, challenge your memory by trying to recall as many details of your experience as possible. How many people were at your book club? What were their names?
  • Use your imagination: Coming up with innovative ways to remember information improves your memory and stimulates your brain at the same time. Use your imagination to create arresting visual images that help you remember people’s names (e.g., picture two hens kissing to remember Henry Kissinger’s name.) Memorize your to-do list by using the first letter of each item to form the words of a simple sentence, or by incorporating the items into an amusing story. Picture yourself driving a new route to remember the directions.
  • Learn something new: Your brain loves novelty. Learning new information stimulates brain cells to form new connections and helps build up your cognitive reserve, creating and extending neuronal connections that help your brain resist memory decline. Keep your memory sharp by learning a new language. Go back to school to take courses that introduce you to something new and fun. Master a new computer program, or teach yourself algebra.
  • Engage in mental math: Routinely work your memory muscles by doing mathematic calculations in your head. For example, add up the change in your pocket or purse using your mind and memory instead of pencil and paper. See how accurately you can figure the total cost of your groceries before you hit the checkout line.
  • Use association: It’s easier to remember new information if you link it to information you already know. For example, you’ll have less trouble remembering the name of your new acquaintance Susan if you associate her with your cousin Susan. To remember a new recipe for garlic butter, you need only recall that it’s exactly like your mustard butter recipe, but uses garlic paste instead of Dijon mustard.
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