When Mick Jagger first sang “What a drag it is getting old,” he was 23 years old. Now at 69, he is still a veritable Jumpin' Jack Flash on stage. Jagger seems to have found the secret to staying physically fit in his advancing years, but getting old can be a drag on the psyche. Many older adults fear memory loss and worry they are headed down the road to dementia, such as Alzheimer's disease. Every time they forget their keys, leave a door unlocked or fail to remember a name, they are reminded of this nagging concern. In most cases, however, such annoying incidents are part of normal age-related memory loss, not a sign of impending dementia.
Although lots of older adults think such a decline is inevitable, there is good news for many of them. Researchers have developed an array of helpful methods and activities that exercise our minds and bodies that can help keep the older mind in relatively good condition. In this column, we examine the most promising ways to shore up memory in the normal aging brain.
Memory is not a single entity. The term encompasses several types of remembering, not all of which decline with age. For instance, older people still retain their vocabulary, along with general knowledge about the world (semantic memory). They can also perform certain routine tasks, such as making an omelet or typing on a computer (procedural memory), about as well as they could when they were younger. People do become worse, however, at recalling recent events in their lives (episodic memory) or where they first learned a piece of information (source memory), managing the temporary storage of short-term information (working memory), and remembering to do things in the future (prospective memory).
Prospective memory, in particular, is an important target for memory strategies because forgetting upcoming tasks or appointments can cause considerable frustration or embarrassment. In 2002 psychologist Narinder Kapur of Southampton General Hospital in England and his colleagues reviewed studies on the effectiveness of various common techniques to bolster prospective memory. They found that external aids such as making lists or programming reminders into a cellphone could be helpful in reducing memory problems such as failing to pay bills or attend meetings.
Another successful strategy involves associating information to be recalled with an image, sentence, phrase or word. The more personally relevant the association is, the more likely it is to be remembered, an approach known as self-referential processing. For example, if we need to return a book to the library, we might imagine ourselves doing just that. Made-up acronyms also can be a big help. In this strategy, a person forms a new word from the initial letters of what he or she wants to remember. To remember to buy a birthday gift for his wife, for example, a man might construct the acronym “BIG” for “Buy Gift.”
In 2008 psychologists Betty L. Glisky of the University of Arizona and Martha L. Glisky of the Evergreen Hospital Medical Center described other useful methods for improving memory that involve visual or semantic elaboration. In one of these, a person conjures up images related to something he or she wants to retain. To remember the name “Peggy,” you might imagine a pirate with a wooden (peg) leg. Such a tactic could be helpful as long as you do not end up calling her “Pegleggy.”
A semantic approach entails tacking on words to what you wish to recall. For example, in a music appreciation class that one of us (Arkowitz) took in elementary school, the teacher asked the class to associate the main musical theme of the classical piece, the Peer Gynt Suite, with the following rather silly sentence: “Morning is dawning and Peer Gynt is yawning and music is written by Grieg.” The tie-in with the phrase was designed to help the kids remember the name of the composer.
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.