Whether it’s forgetting where you left your mobile, or drawing a complete blank when trying to conjure up someone’s name, ‘memory hiccups’ have long been considered a part of ageing. But emerging science is now saying, ‘nuh-uh’ to the theory that growing older and a declining memory go hand-in-hand.
News just in: we have the power to create new neural structures and pathways, which means great things for your memory’s capacity to remain robust. Here’s what Harvard University advises (the below draws on decades of research):
1. Make learning a life-long passion
While if you’re lucky, your job will provide a great deal of mental stimulus, taking up a new interest can do the same. Join a book group, write your life story, take up a musical instrument (I know someone who’s just started African drumming lessons and says he leaves each class feeling super buzzed) or design a new layout for your garden. “Experts think that advanced education may help keep memory strong by getting a person into the habit of being mentally active,” says the report.
2. Smell, touch, taste, listen
Scientists say that when you use your senses during the process of learning something new, more of your brain is involved in retaining the memory. Essentially what you’re doing is creating an additional trigger for recalling a memory–for instance if you really take in smell of, say, roast tomatoes when you’re learning a new recipe for spaghetti napolitana, encountering that smell in the future may take you back to the recipe—a process with strengthens the neural pathway connected with that set of information.
3. Get confident about your ability
According to the report, “Middle-aged and older learners do worse on memory tasks when they’re exposed to negative stereotypes about ageing and memory, and better when the messages are positive about memory preservation into old age.” In other words: thinking that your memory will fail as you age can become a self-fulfilling prophecy—don’t buy into negative preconceptions. Think actress Dame Judi Dench (75 years) or writer and scholar Edward de Bono (77 years), two older public figures that continue to innovate and excel in their chosen fields.
Did you know?
Exercise = greater brain power
After exercise, people have twice the blood flow of non-exercisers—an increase that particularly shows up in the dentate gyrus, a crucial brain region for memory. As Barbara Strauch explains in her book, Secrets of the Grown-Up Brain, the dentate gyrus blood flow jumps the most when we become most fit, which may translate into improved performance in cognitive tests.
References available on request