Although Glisky and Glisky found support for these visual and semantic techniques, among others, they cautioned that memory improvements in the laboratory do not necessarily translate to enhancements in daily life, because these benefits depend on people practicing and using the tactics regularly. This gap in efficacy may be widest for strategies that take considerable time and effort to learn. Also, improvements in one area of memory often do not generalize to others.
Studies have found some support for the validity of the saying “Use it or lose it.” The more we use our memory—for example, reading, doing crossword puzzles and playing board games—the better it may be, probably because such activities involve considerable use of memory. Of course, those with better memories may also be more likely to exercise their minds in the first place, accounting for some (but probably not all) of the association between good memory and amount of cognitive stimulation.
Fit Body, Fit Mind
If Jagger is as physically fit as he looks, his mind may be following suit. Some studies have found that higher levels of aerobic exercise are associated with better memory in older adults. Although many of these studies do not prove that aerobic exercise causes the memory improvements, some do suggest a causal connection. When psychologist Stanley Colcombe of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his colleagues reviewed 18 controlled studies addressing this association in 2003, they found evidence that aerobic exercise did indeed lead to enhancements in memory.
Sustained aerobic activity may not be the only way to keep your mind agile and your memory sharp. In a study published in 2011 neurologist Ruth Ruscheweyh of the University of Münster in Germany and her colleagues assessed total physical activity in 62 older adults over six months. Their questionnaire included both formal exercise and daily routines such as walking to work, climbing stairs and gardening. The researchers linked reported increases in overall activity, no matter its type, with improvements in episodic memory at the end of six months. The greater the rise in activity levels, the bigger the memory boost. Thus, keeping physically active through regular workouts along with everyday errands and tasks may be the best recipe for reinvigorating your powers of recollection. [For more on the connection between physical and mental fitness in old age, see “Fit Body, Fit Mind?” by Christopher Hertzog, Arthur F. Kramer, Robert S. Wilson and Ulman Lindenberger; Scientific American Mind, July/August 2009.]
The research suggests that many memory techniques as well as a physically and mentally energetic lifestyle can improve memory in older adults. We still have a long way to go before we have highly effective methods, but given the vigor of this field, we can expect great progress in the near future.
This article was originally published with the title Memory in Old Age: Not a Lost Cause.