COLLEGE STATION – Aging is an adventure: Since no one is getting any younger, perhaps that’s the best way to look at it.
But aging does come with its drawbacks, and many older adults report one of the most troubling of these drawbacks is aging’s effect on memory.
“In people over age 60, more than 80 percent complain about their memory function,” said Dr. Judy Warren, Texas Cooperative Extension gerontology specialist. “But only 15 percent ever discuss these concerns with a doctor. Many older adults believe it is inevitable to experience memory problems with age.”
But is it? While research suggests some minor memory lapses are part of aging, “major memory changes are frequently related to such underlying causes as medications, disease, depression or malnutrition,” Warren said.
Many of these conditions can be treated and reversed.
Misplaced keys, forgotten birthdays or anniversaries, lost names of old teachers – these “minor memory lapses” are just a normal part of aging. “It is projected that 85 percent of healthy older people experience some memory impairment – the ‘tip-of-the-tongue’ memory loss is most common,” Warren said. “This is often a ‘speed of recall’ issue and rarely is more than an inconvenience.”
Metamemory, on the other hand, is the sum of an individual’s knowledge and perceptions about his or her own memory. Researchers are focusing on this kind of memory in order to understand how healthy older adults’ memories function.
“Research has identified three areas of importance,” Warren said. These are:
- Memory monitoring – how memory is used and current memory status;
- Memory self-efficacy – an individual’s sense of mastery and his or her beliefs about memory; and
- Memory-related affect – how states of mind such as anxiety, fatigue or depression affect memory.
This research has found “that a person’s confidence does affect performance,” Warren reported. Negative beliefs about memory – “old timer’s disease” – and emotional states do impact how a person’s memory functions, she added.
Many factors can affect an individual’s memory, Warren said.
Like blue eyes or curly hair, people are born with different memory capacities. “These differences remain with us during our lifetime,” she said. “If name recall was difficult in the early years, it is not likely that wizardry at remembering names will occur in old age.”
Memory function changes with age too. While younger people are usually quicker at remembering facts, older people can remember a wider range of information, Warren said.
“There are actually two types of intelligence – crystallized and fluid,” she said. “Crystallized intelligence increases with age and is the accumulated knowledge that a person can draw on – vocabulary, judgment and wisdom or experience.
“Fluid intelligence is the speed and accuracy of information processing – how quickly something can be learned and recalled. It is also how quickly one can process and solve problems. This is where younger people do well. They also demonstrate more flexibility in looking at a problem several different ways.”
Some medical conditions – such as a stroke or Alzheimer’s disease – can affect memory abilities, but most healthy older adults experience memory lapses from more ordinary causes.
“Most memory problems experienced by people have to do with speed of recall or inadequate learning in the first place,” Warren said. “If a person didn’t hear or learn a name last week, why would remembering the name be an expectation?”
Then there’s the “habit of being inconsistent, which affects recall,” she said. “If keys are put down in a different place each day, it will be hard to remember where they are.”
Education has an impact on memory too, she said. “The level of education a person attains seems to affect memory in two ways – by setting up information classification systems so information can be ‘filed’ and found more easily, and by increasing the likelihood of lifelong learning.”
And finally, cultural influences can affect memory. Enough exposure to “over the hill” ageist birthday cards can convince a person that memory failure is inevitable.
But that’s not necessarily so, Warren said. “What is clearly demonstrated through recent research on healthy older adults is that activities that engage the mind can improve memory function. Older adults can engage in activities that can help them pinpoint some sources that contribute to their own memory problems – such as habits, thinking patterns and beliefs. By identifying areas for change, an older adult can begin improving memory function.”
“The brain is as responsive to challenge as any muscle,” she said. “Learning continues throughout life.”
In other words: “Use it or lose it,” Warren said.
Consider it part of the adventure of aging.