If you find yourself wondering where you left your glasses—again—or struggling to recall a name or a word you’ve used a million times, you’re not alone. Many people over 40 get frustrated by the occasional “senior moment.” But if you’re worried that your lapses are destined to be a permanent part of old age, take heart. It’s never too late to improve brain function.
The Aging Brain
Cognition includes the ability to learn new things, judgment, intuition, language and remembering. As people age, three basic trends begin to affect cognition, and over time they have a noticeable impact on memory, thinking and focus:
• Speed: The brain gradually slows down—but the speed of information coming in from the senses doesn’t. Over time, the brain begins to miss details, making it more difficult to react to and remember what was seen or heard.
• Accuracy: Like the grooves of an old record, the brain’s neural pathways often get fuzzier, scratchier, or even distorted. When the brain records the static along with the important sensory information, memories are fuzzier and more difficult to process.
• Recording: The brain uses chemicals called neuromodulators to determine what information is important to record and process. With each passing decade, the brain produces fewer neuromodulators. This hinders the ability to record new information—in other words, to learn and remember.
“At first, people don’t notice problems because they automatically use context to fill in what they missed,” says Michael Merzenich, co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science. “Although this helps in the immediate situation, it doesn’t improve the quality of the memory. As the years pass, the gaps can become too big for context to fill in. When this occurs, it can be hard to catch and respond to the information even at the moment.”
The good news is that physical brain change occurs every time something new is learned. This continuous physical, chemical and functional process is called brain plasticity. And it can be strengthened, even in an aging brain.
“We need to use and develop our brain’s machinery through learning,” says Merzenich. “This doesn’t mean just academic learning. It means practicing targeted activities that engage the senses and our memories, and that involve the production of refined movements. By applying these types of activities, it’s possible to maintain—and possibly restore—cognitive abilities.”
Here are some simple exercises you can do to keep your brain fit.
• Take a guided tour of a museum or another site of interest. Pay careful attention to what the guide says. When you get home, reconstruct the tour by writing an outline that includes everything you remember. Memory activities that engage all levels of brain operation, such as receiving, remembering and thinking, help to improve the function of the brain.
• Choose a song with lyrics you enjoy but don’t have memorized. Listen to the song as many times as necessary to write down all the lyrics. Then learn to sing along. Once you’ve mastered one song, move on to another. Developing better habits of careful listening will help you in your understanding, thinking and remembering. Reconstructing the song requires close, intentional focus and an active memory.
In addition to exercises like these, you can take advantage of brain training software, such as the brain fitness programs offered by Posit Science. These scientifically tested programs target the brain’s ability to absorb information from all the senses.
“Using a program in which you practice remembering a grocery list may help you get better at remembering grocery lists,” says Merzenich. “But when you exercise the roots of memory, you’ll likely find that not only can you remember grocery lists better, you can also remember conversations, tasks and even that word that is just on the tip of your tongue.”
To get more tips and test your own brain fitness, visit www.positscience.com.