You hear a lot about how your memory is probably going to decline as you get older. It can be discouraging. After all, most of us experience a lot of growth in wisdom, knowledge, and savviness as we age. It seems a shame that we would lose all that to a faulty memory.
Well, it turns out, we don’t have to. Find out how you can actually improve your memory as you age.
It’s no secret that many people do experience cognitive decline with age. And it’s wise to take steps to prevent that. But did you know there are actually ways in which your memory might improve as you get older? Let me tell you about three of them so that you can check to see if you’re on track. If not, I’ll give you some strategies that can help you protect your hard-won experiences.
First, as you age, you’ll probably be able to keep track of what’s important. This is a key frustration for many seniors who participate in memory trials. They might struggle to keep track of a list of 10 random words for a researcher – because they know the words don’t matter. But they can keep up with what they really need to know.
Researchers have begun to take this into consideration. For example, in one study, researchers presented participants with 20 different items they might want to take on a trip. Then they asked the participants to recall the items. The older adults (average age 68) remembered more of the items they thought were important (say, a passport or medications) than the younger adults (average age 20.4) did.
Another study found that older adults were better than younger adults at remembering the side effects of medications or allergens that posed a threat to their grandchildren. Yet another study used the word-list method but assigned point values to the words. Older adults did typically remember fewer words than younger adults. But they remembered just as many of the high-value words.
Second (and related), older adults typically have good “future memories.” That is, they’re able to keep track of what they need to do in the future. Researchers call this “prospective memory.”
Once again, older adults have complained that studies often don’t test their prospective memories accurately. Seniors may have trouble remembering to follow arbitrary directions in a study. But they don’t usually forget to take their medication or pay their bills on time.
Here’s How It Works
Seniors often develop strategies to trigger prospective memories. They might leave a bill they need to pay next to the door. Or they put their medications by their toothbrushes. This doesn’t mean they’re forgetful. It means they’re smart!
To test prospective memory in a more realistic setting, researchers gave participants postcards to mail back to the lab. Sure enough, it was the seniors who faithfully returned the cards on time. (You can draw your own conclusions about the younger participants and responsibility! All we know from this is that the older adults didn’t forget!)
Writing events down in a calendar is a classic example of a prospective memory prompt. There’s no reason to consider a calendar a crutch. If it helps you keep track of dates, use it for everything!
It’s All in Your Priorities
Finally, as you age, you’re likely to remember what interests you – even if it’s a random fact. This helps explain why seniors are often great at trivia! Researchers confirmed this by presenting older and younger adults with some questions about unusual but obscure facts. They asked the participants to rank how interested they were in learning the answers. Then the researchers provided the answers.
The next week, the researchers asked the participants for the answers to the same questions. The older adults were more likely to remember the facts that interested them than the ones they didn’t care about. The younger adults’ memories were much more random.
Clearly, older adults have gained some wisdom and some strategies for making the most of their memories. And these strategies really do work! Don’t let fears about your age convince you that you’re becoming forgetful. Your mindset can make a big difference. In fact, researchers have even found that calling their studies “wisdom tests” rather than “memory tests” leads to better performance among older adults.
Of course, it’s possible for memory to begin to slip as you age. It’s just not inevitable. But if you’ve noticed your memory isn’t working as well as you’d like, there are some strategies you can use to improve or protect it. These can also help you ward off more serious issues like Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Steps to Ward Off Memory Loss
The first is to get some sleep! I’m sure you know that foggy feeling that comes with sleeping poorly or not enough. But preliminary research is indicating that losing sleep may do worse things to your brain than just make you groggy.
Most people have heard of beta amyloid. This protein can form plaques in the brain that research has linked to Alzheimer’s disease. But researchers are still investigating what triggers these plaques. It turns out that losing just one night of sleep can cause them to form.
Researchers examined the brains of 20 healthy participants who ranged in age from 22 to 72. They evaluated the participants’ beta amyloid levels after they’d slept well and again after they’d been awake for approximately 31 hours. The researchers found that beta amyloid levels jumped about 5% – after just one night of lost sleep.
Interestingly, the researchers also noted that the larger the increase, the worse the participant’s mood!
The researchers don’t know yet if getting a good night’s rest will cause the plaques to subside. But this study is a very important reminder of how much our sleep affects our cognitive health. If you have trouble sleeping, check my website for some of my strategies to help you sleep better. And if you aren’t getting good sleep because you stay up too late, try setting an alarm to tell you when to go to bed. It might help you avoid having to use other reminders in the future!
This Beverage Helps You Wake Up and Remember
If you do occasionally sleep poorly, chances are you’ll be reaching for a cup of coffee in the morning. And don’t worry – you don’t have to stop. (Unless, of course, you constantly use coffee to try to mask poor sleep habits.) Drinking coffee may actually decrease your risk of developing both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Researchers at the Krembil Brain Institute investigated the effects of light roast, dark roast, and decaf dark roast. They found that compounds called phenylindanes, which develop during the roasting process, help keep protein fragments from forming clumps. The researchers were excited to find that these compounds inhibit both beta amyloid and tau proteins. These proteins have been linked to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Because phenylindanes develop in the roasting process, dark roast contains the most. So if you enjoy the taste of dark roast coffee, it may offer some protection to your brain—even if you choose decaf.
The researchers need to do further work to determine how much phenylindane crosses the blood-brain barrier. But these findings are likely another piece of the puzzle regarding why coffee is so beneficial.
We also know that coffee provides antioxidants. But it’s not the only good source of antioxidants for the brain. Carotenoids, the pigments that give many fruits and vegetables their orange, yellow, or red color, can help too.
In particular, the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin are great for the brain. Researchers have linked higher levels to better cognitive performance. In fact, one study found that supplementing with these two carotenoids led to improvements on complex attention, memory, and reasoning ability tests.
Diet and Supplements Help Reduce Memory Loss
Eating a diet full of colorful fruits and vegetables like broccoli, corn, bell peppers, kiwifruit, oranges, zucchini, and leafy greens will help you get lots of these antioxidants. You can also find these in supplement form. However, there is no downside to eating plenty of vegetables, so I recommend starting there!
If you do like taking supplements, there’s another I can recommend: N-acetyl cysteine (NAC). NAC comes from the amino acid L-cysteine. It has a number of benefits to the body. One of them is naturally boosting levels of the antioxidant glutathione (GSH).
What does this have to do with the brain? Well, it turns out that GSH helps to protect the brain from stress. And as you might imagine, having Alzheimer’s disease is very stressful for the brain.
It’s not surprising that recent research has found that Alzheimer’s patients typically have much lower levels of GSH than healthy people. Right now, we don’t know if Alzheimer’s disease uses up the GSH reserves or if having low GSH contributes to Alzheimer’s. But we know enough about GSH’s function to know having more can benefit the brain either way.
To boost your levels of GSH, I recommend taking 1,800 mg of NAC twice a day for two months and then you can reduce to 600-800 mg twice daily. If you notice that you felt considerably better on the higher dose, you can adjust accordingly. We don’t enjoy experiencing stress in any aspect of our lives. The brain is no different. So make sure it has the protection it needs.
As we age, we typically develop strategies to remember what’s important to us. Sleeping, drinking coffee, and getting the right antioxidants can all be part of those strategies. If you forget something a time or two or come in second at trivia night, don’t despair. These strategies can help you maintain and even improve your memory—no matter how many birthdays you’re claiming to have forgotten.