As we age, we may start to notice that we are having trouble remembering things. Perhaps you went into the kitchen for a snack, but once you got in there, you forgot what you were doing. Maybe you forget where you parked your car.
Forgetting things occurs in young and older people due to various reasons like stress, sickness, or a lack of sleep for the day. However, it happens more frequently as we grow older, and it can cause some concerns. The good news is there are some techniques you can follow to prevent decline and improve your cognitive function.
How Aging Changes Your Brain
Your brain changes in several ways as you age.
As you age, your brain will experience changes in its cognitive abilities. The process of converting new information into memory and the recall for names and numbers can take more time. Two types of declarative memory decline as you age. This is where you retain the memory of your life events, learned facts, and information. However, your procedural memory doesn’t decline. These things include tying your shoe and riding a bike.
Your working memory is equally affected. The working memory is where you contain pieces of information in your mind. These include remembering phone numbers, where you parked your car, or your password. Working memory relies on processing new information instead of your stored knowledge.
Aging causes a decline in this function starting around the age of 30. Other aspects include problem-solving and processing speed. Your attention span is equally affected as we age. The ability to use your selective attention, such as tuning out distractions, suffers a decline. Your divided attention involves splitting your attention between two tasks. This issue becomes complex for your brain.
While most cognitive declines begin at age 30, some abilities actually improve during middle age. One study tracked cognitive abilities for over 50 years and found improvement. Tests on verbal abilities, math, and abstract and spatial reasoning showed higher scores in middle age than in young adults.
Despite a decline, some studies show we never stop learning throughout our lifetime. The brain has plasticity. As we age, we are capable of learning new tasks and take on new challenges because of the rerouting of neural connections.
The cognitive abilities that change also appear in the brain’s structure and chemistry. When we enter middle age, our brains change structurally. The brain’s volume starts to shrink once we reach our 30s. This shrinking continues at a steady rate until we reach age 60, where it increases.
The brain has different rates and volumes of shrinking based on certain areas. For example, the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and the cerebellum lose the most and get worse in advanced age. The cerebral cortex thins out as we age. The thinning closely resembles the volume loss and is more noticeable in the frontal and some parts of the temporal lobes.
Scientists hypothesize a theory of brain aging called “last-in, first-out.” This concept means the last parts of the brain that develop are the first to decline. Studies prove these changes to white matter when aging. Association fibers are the fibers that connect areas in a hemisphere. These fibers develop and mature last, making them the first to demonstrate the most decline with age.
The changes that neurons undergo also have a hand in the shrinking and thinning of the brain. Neurons have dendrites and myelin that surrounds the axons. When the brain ages, the dendrites shrink and detract, and the myelin breaks down. This breakdown causes the synapses to drop, which affects your memory and learning.
Synaptic changes are subtle, but their effect on your cognitive decline is greater than chemical and structural changes. The dendrites in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex shrink, which loses their dendritic spines. This area is where the chemical signals are received.
One study found that the aging process selects thin spines, a certain class of spines. They have high plasticity and extend and retract more than another class of spines. It’s speculated that the thin spines are involved with working memory. This is because of the high synaptic plasticity. The degeneration of the thin spines is responsible for cognitive decline.
Your brain’s ability to make new neurons also declines with age. Scientists in the past believed that once we were born, new neurons couldn’t be made. However, two brain regions produce new ones throughout your life. These sit in the olfactory bulbs and the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus.
A study in 2018 found that neurogenesis is rare when you reach adulthood, and if it happens, it’s subtle enough that it’s undetectable. Scientists do not know if neurogenesis can affect cognition in the later stages of life, just yet. However, a study with mice found that you can boost neurogenesis by exercising, which improved cognitive function.
Chemical messengers are produced less as we age. Studies show that in aging participants, their brains synthesize less dopamine. There are fewer receptors for the neurotransmitter to bind to. One study found that mild cognitive impairment was present in those who were aged 60 to 70 years old. They also produced less serotonin in their brains. It was hypothesized that adjusting the serotonin levels might be able to treat memory loss and even prevent it.
Tips on How to Sharpen Your Memory
When we age, we often stop doing things that exercise our minds. This slowdown happens for various reasons. There are ways you can prevent your memory from failing and treat any existing memory problems you have. If you suffer from a medical condition, it’s best to speak with your doctor before proceeding.
Countless studies have been conducted on the power of exercise. It’s not just great for your physical health, but your mental help too. Exercise improves blood flow to the brain. Research reveals that aerobic exercise links to improving your memory.
Cathepsin B is a protein triggered when you exercise. This protein triggers new neuron growth, and new connections in the area of the brain called the hippocampus. Studies suggest that exercising four hours after you learn something new might help you remember things. It might even prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s.
2. Eat Healthier
In general, it’s always a plus to eat healthily. It has benefits for your body that only increase as you age. Eating unhealthy fats (saturated and unsaturated) like butter and red meat have been linked to poor memory. Cholesterol is the key culprit for this as it not only builds in your arteries but also your brain. The best diet for memory improvement and prevention is the Mediterranean diet.
Interacting with other people benefits our mental health. We are social creatures by nature and the research supports the health benefits. One study that used elderly participants found that those who were the least social suffered two times as much memory loss than those who were social.
4. Keep Learning
Learning strengthens your cognitive function. You may be tempted as you age to just sit around and relax in front of the tv. Studies show that challenging yourself and learning new things reshapes a specific region in your brain. One study tested London cab drivers that memorized a city map. Drivers that passed the test reshaped their brains and had a better cognitive function.
5. Use Memory Techniques
One memory technique to help you remember things are Mnemonics. Mnemonics is a system that aids in memory. This tool is usually a pattern of letters or associations. There are many different types you can use.
· Use Acronyms – Here’s an example we all know–R.I.CE. (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate). Another one you probably remember well is ROYGBIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet).
· Music – Music is a good choice for remembering things because it uses repetition and structures information. It’s part of why advertising with jingles is so powerful. It’s why you recollect it better than your bank account numbers!
· Rhyming – Rhyming is like music mnemonics. An example of a rhyming mnemonic is “in 1492; Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
· Rhyming Peg System – Rhyming Peg is frequently associated with numbers. For example, “one = bun, two = zoo, and so on.”
6. Spaced Repetition
Repetition is one of the most powerful learning tools when used correctly. Students will try to cram a ton of information into a small timeframe. Then, they end up forgetting everything when it comes time for the test. This situation is because of the forgetting curve, “either you use it, or you lose it.”
You process complicated information much easier when spacing out your repetitions — for example, restudying for one hour then three hours the next day. Studies show that not only healthy people can remember things better with this method. Those with physical-based cognitive problems do too.
Final Thoughts: Brain Health Dictates How Well You Remember Things
Aging doesn’t have to slow you down. Your brain will indeed start declining in function as you age. You can try some techniques to remember things easier. Some of the methods like a nutritious diet or exercising aren’t only better for your brain health. But they contribute to your overall health too.