Memory And The Aging Brain

SOFT SKILLS MATTER)Several factors cause an aging brain to experience changes in its ability to retain and retrieve memories. In fact, one of the main issues is that the retrieval system can slow down considerably. That does not mean that you no longer have the information, rather it means it has become more difficult to find where it is stored.

It is rather like an “old” computer that works more slowly than a new one. Your brain has to find the correct section where the data is stored, then it has to determine in which group of cells to find the desired information.

Finally, it needs to find the particular neurons that hold that data. This can all take time in an older brain.

It is better to just “let it go” and when you least expect it, the word, name, etc. will return…it will just “pop” into your mind.

Here are examples of those factors:

The Hippocampus: this inner portion of the brain is mainly responsible for long term memory. So when you have concentrated well enough to encode new information, the hippocampus sends a signal to store that information as long-term memory.

This happens more easily if it’s related to something you already know, or if it stimulates an emotional response to the situation or information. This portion of the brain is especially vulnerable to age-related deterioration, and that can affect how well you retain information.

There is a relative loss of neurons (brain cells) with age: This can definitely affect the activity of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and their receptors. An older person often experiences decreased blood flow to the brain because they process nutrients that enhance brain activity less efficiently than a younger person.

However, in healthy older adults, these changes represent more of a slowing in the ability to absorb, store, and retrieve new information, not truly a loss.

The factual information you’ve accumulated over the years remains largely intact, as does procedural memory.

Of course, some older adults do develop more significant problems with memory that are the result of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Dementia, stroke, injury(from a fall), poor nutrition, other physiological issues, or emotional problems. Nonetheless, if you continue to challenge your brain by learning new things which require parts of your brain that you have not used much in the past, you will continue to create new neurons to deal with that new information and new and more neuropathways to access this new data. All of this will improve the function of your brain by keeping it active and working….this will also enhance your memory.

Examples of such activities include learning a new language, how to paint, draw, weave, take photographs, or other areas of art, how to play a musical instrument, singing in a choir, taking dancing lessons, trying to cook new recipes from a different culture, learning new computer programs, or taking some continuing education courses in areas of science, art history or anything you might always have wanted to explore but did not have the time to do so when working full time and/or raising a family.

It also important for seniors to eat healthfully, get adequate, deep sleep, refrain from smoking, get regular exercise, keep stress at low levels, and socialize with others. All these elements not only are good for your body and general health, but are also beneficial to the health and function of your brain.

In addition, there are a number of “tricks” that you can employ to aid your memory.   Here are a few:

Employ mnemonic devices….these are memory methods that use an association of the information you want to remember with a visual image, a sentence, or a word.

Common types of mnemonic devices include:

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  1. Visual images such as a microphone to remember the name “Mike” or a rose for “Rosie.” Use positive, pleasant images, because the brain often blocks out unpleasant ones, and make them vivid, colorful, and three-dimensional because then they will be easier to remember.
  2. Sentences in which the first letter of each word is part of or represents the initial of what you want to remember. Millions of musicians, for example, first memorized the lines of the treble staff with the sentence “Every good boy does fine” (or “deserves favor”), which representing the notes E, G, B, D, and F. Medical students often learn groups of nerves, bones, and other anatomical features using nonsense sentences.
  3. Acronyms, which are initials that create pronounceable words. The spaces between the lines on the treble staff, for example, are F, A, C, and E: FACE. Or “some mothers have electric ovens” to recall the names of the Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario.
  4. Rhymes and alliteration can also help. Do you remember learning “30 days hath September, April, June, and November”? A hefty guy named Robert can be remembered as “Big Bob” and a smiley co-worker as “Perky Pat” (though it might be best to keep such names to yourself).
  5. Jokes or even off-color associations using facts, figures, and names you need to recall, because funny or peculiar things are easier to remember than mundane images.       Again, these can be kept to yourself however, if they help you to recall things when you need them it is good to create such associations.
  6. “Chunking” information, means arranging a long list into smaller units or categories that are easier to remember. If you can reel off your Social Security number without looking at it, that’s probably because it’s arranged in groups of 3, 2, and 4 digits, or in Canada, in groups of 3 digits, not a string of 9.
  7. “Method of loci”, this is an ancient and effective way of remembering a lot of material, such as a speech. You associate each part of what you have to remember with a landmark in a route you know well, such as your commute to work or your favourite walk.[/message][su_spacer]

So, even if you are a senior, there is no reason you cannot continue to learn, recall and enjoy your life. It is easy to do so when you take care of yourself and enjoy your friends and family, too!


Sandy Chernoff
Sandy Chernoff
SANDY'S 30 years of didactic and clinical teaching in study clubs and continuing dental education, coupled with her almost 40 years of Dental Hygiene practice bring a wealth of experience to her interactive soft skills workshops. With her education background she easily customizes interactive sessions to suit the specific needs of her clients. Her energetic and humorous presentation style has entertained and informed audiences from Victoria to New York City. Sandy’s client list includes law firms, teaching institutions, volunteer and professional organizations and conferences, businesses, and individuals. Her newest project is turning her live workshops into e-learning programs using an LMS platform. Her teaching and education background have helped her to produce meaningful and somewhat interactive courses for the learners wanting the convenience of e-learning options. As the author of 5 Secrets to Effective Communication, Sandy has demonstrated her ability to demystify the complexities of communication so that the reader can learn better strategies and approaches which will greatly improve their communication skills and ultimately reduce conflict, resentment, disappointment, complaining, and confusion. As a result, the reader will be able to increase productivity, efficiency and creativity, improve all the relationships in their lives and ultimately enjoy a happier, healthier existence! Sandy blogs regularly on her two websites on the various soft skills topics that are featured in her workshops and e-learning programs.

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    • I am sorry to hear that, Larry…..however, it does not mean that the same thing will happen to you and there are things you can do to prevent and slow down that process. We just need to keep using that brain in new and different ways… know the adage: if you don’t use it, you lose it! Take care, my friend!

    • Of course, you do, Larry, that is why your stories are so good! Besides, it is fun to learn new things!

  1. What a wonderful piece of advice; Thanks a lot, Sandy! I find great value in here as I am also headed that way, sooner or later. I keep my brain active by reading different types of books, magazines, articles as well as research papers that generate curiosity within. No wonder, my continued study of ‘Internet of Things’ has helped me pursue a number of courses I would have never even imagined in my life. All said and done, a remarkable lesson that goes a long way in maintaining the mental health of those that follow.

    Warm Regards

    • So glad you found this beneficial, Bharat…..I have done quite a lot of research as I am most interested in brain chemistry and how it all works. The aging process slows down our retrieval processes so we have to be more patient with ourselves. The most important thing we can do is keep stimulating our brain by learning new things and doing our routine activities in new ways.
      You are doing the right things to keep your brain healthy!!!

  2. Good suggestions. I’m of the older vintage but don’t have a memory problem (at least not yet). I find that what works best for me, and has for many years, is just flushing by memory of all unimportant data when I sleep. I don’ try to remember that Robert is “Burly Bob” or other tricks. I just don’t remember Robert if he isn’t important for me to remember. I don’t try to remember details that don’t matter, like who performed the national anthem at the last presidential inauguration. I don’t care.

    • Whatever works is the key, here Ken….everyone is different and each of us needs to do whatever works for us. The tips offered are for those who have not yet figured out what works for them so they can try some of the ideas I offered. Whenever I run this workshop, people share things that they do and it is always interesting to learn ideas from others.
      Have a great weekend!

  3. Sandy, thank you for this advice. I’m taking these ideas into my daily practice. My sister is 11 years older than me and her doctor told her to do things that taxed her brain, such as eat with her right hand instead of her normal left. There were other things too, but your list is excellent. I have brain damage from an accident that is really tough on my short term memory and I lose concentration a lot too. I appreciate this article.

    • Hi Jane,
      I am delighted that you have found some helpful ideas from the article. As an “older” person myself, I try not to drive myself crazy, many things I am good at remembering, sometimes I make lists and sometimes I just let the thought go and wait, usually it does not take too long, for the answer to come back to me. I think as long as we keep using our brains and challenge them with new approaches, we will function better longer!
      Have a great weekend!