Your memories define who you are. The places you have visited, people you’ve interacted with, the food you’ve eaten, positive experiences, and even the negative moments have all worked in unison to synthesize the person you are today.
When an individual realizes that they’re losing their memory, they feel as if they are losing a part of themselves. It is little wonder that for individuals who are reaching the third phase of life even common memory lapses can be terrifying. Losing their keys, forgetting someone’s name, and misplacing a wallet can make seniors wonder if they are developing the onset of dementia.
Thankfully, there are positive steps you can take to improve your memory right now. These steps will help you create memories today that will make the present as meaningful as the past. In order to accomplish this, it is good to have a basic understanding of how the human memory works, the link between aging and memory loss, the connection between our memories and the sense of meaning we have in our lives, and finally steps that we can take to improve the meaning in our life.
The Truth about Age and Memory
It is encouraging for seniors to know the statistics about Alzheimer’s and dementia. Most seniors do not develop Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, statistically, 80 percent of people over the age of 65 and 50 percent of individuals over the age of 85 will never develop Alzheimer’s. However, it is important to accept that in the same way that our body changes with age so our memory will experience changes. It is good to know what age-related changes in memory are normal and what changes may require medical or psychological care.
How does Memory Work?
Memory is a complicated process. For example, a person may be able to remember certain events from their past with absolute clarity, while other events either completely fade from memory or become fuzzy overtime.
Part of that has to do with the brain’s ability to retain information. Retention is the ability to associate different events and information together. For example, when a person attempts to recall their wedding day, their mind brings back information about the date the event took place, where the wedding was held, who was there, and also the feelings one had during the event. Retention is a key factor in a person’s ability to search their memories to recall certain events as well as the ability they have to do mental time travel. That is why humans are able to relive certain events in their mind and feel like they were there again.
Recall, or recollection, is different from the sense of familiarity one has when they are in a place or around an individual they were previously in or knew. Familiarity is when you hear a piece of music and know you’ve heard it before, but you just can’t remember when. Familiarity is when you see someone’s face and you know you’ve met them before, but the details of that meeting are not clear. That sense of familiarity is something that happens almost instantaneously. Recalling details associated with the events you are familiar with takes more time.
Recall and the Aging Process
The hippocampus and the medial temporal lobes of the brain play a vital role in connecting the information needed in the brain to give rise to recall. However, the perirhinal and entorhinal cortices seem to be the parts of the brain that cause the sense of familiarity. Researchers have seen that the parts of the brain associated with recall decline as a person ages. The parts of the brain associated with familiarity stay relatively the same regardless of a person’s age.
It appears that the structures of the hippocampus begin to deteriorate or decline with time, whereas the entorhinal cortex shows little change. Another phenomenon that happens with age is that the information retrieved is mis-remembered. Older adults are more likely to experience false memories.
Possible Causes of Memory Problems
If you feel that your memory is diminishing with age, it would be premature to assume that dementia or Alzheimer’s are the cause. There are many reversible conditions that can exacerbate memory issues as one ages. These include depression, anxiety, dehydration, the side effects of medication, thyroid challenges, the overuse of alcohol, and even poor nutrition.
It is important for seniors to discuss these possible reasons for memory loss with their healthcare provider. Often times, a complete medical review will identify the culprit behind the memory loss. Neuropsychological evaluation can identify cognitive changes and help you know for a fact what is behind your memory loss.
How Memories Add Meaning to Life
Happiness is an emotion that is fleeting. A person can feel happy because of an activity that they are engaged in currently, but in a few moments, that sense of happiness may go away. Meaning is something that is permanent. Meaning in life is closely linked with memories, and not just the good memories that a person has.
Even the negative or tragic experiences a person has had in life will shape them. Hard lessons can make a person more compassionate and give them greater insight into who they are as well as in situations that others face.
Research has shown that individuals who focus solely on the present seem to be happier. However, individuals who think about the future or their past, be it good or negative, have a life that is more meaningful. Meaning comes from working through past challenges. Resilience is formed in the growth that one makes after traumatic events.
Since a sense of meaning is intrinsically linked to memory, it is good to take steps to help to remember things, even when a person’s sense of recall begins to diminish because of age. For example, taking photographs every single day and storing them in a yearbook can help a person remember the events that took place during the year and find the meaning diminishing recall may take from them.
Keeping a gratitude journal and writing down everyday events over the course of the year is beneficial. Writing in a gratitude journal may make it easier for you to remember the positive things that happen through the year that make your present as meaningful as the past.
Tips for Maintaining and Improving Your Memory
Although there is nothing that can be done to stop the aging process, there are tips that seniors can use to maintain and improve their memory as they age.
Research has clearly shown a link between socializing and improved memory. The more a person participates in social activities, the better their mood is and the better their mind functions.
Practice Makes Perfect
Keeping your mind active is another key to maintaining and improving memory. The more you train your brain by practicing thinking skills and memory skills, the more efficiently it will work in recalling the information you need.
Physical activity has long been linked to mental performance. Exercising, riding a bike, going for a walk, or going for a swim can all help to maintain brain function.
Take care of your health by managing chronic diseases that could impact your memory. These would include conditions like diabetes, obesity, and depression. Lifestyle factors such as over drinking and smoking can negatively impact your memory. Recent studies have shown that up to 50 percent of Alzheimer’s disease cases around the world were linked to the above-mentioned risk factors or other modifiable health conditions.
Do not believe the hype. There are a lot of stereotypes about aging and memory loss. However, there are many scholarly studies that show the link between having a positive viewpoint of the aging process and improved memory performance.
Routine Routine Routine
As a person ages, their memories may fade. Take steps to minimize the impact this can have on your life. Keep things in their place. For example, always put your keys, your wallet, your reading glasses, or your medication in a place where you know where they are. Use a calendar to write down important dates. Make a habit of checking the calendar multiple times a day.
Each day presents opportunities to create new memories and to find new meaning in life. Just because you are getting older does not mean that you cannot actively participate in life. Just because you are getting older does not mean that you cannot benefit and appreciate the experiences you have had in your past. Just because you are getting older does not mean that you cannot create new memories today that will serve as a basis for a better tomorrow. It is in your hands to decide to make the present as meaningful as the past.