Memory is an essential part of our self-awareness.
According to neurobiologist Gerald Edelman, it is connected to our actual living bodies, and along with identity and space, defines our primary consciousness. Alas, here we are, all wondering whether our forgetfulness is just normal aging or we’re really in trouble.
Our minds and memories can certainly play tricks on us. We’ve all forgotten what we went to get in the kitchen, where we put our glasses or the names of familiar people. These situations can be disconcerting as we read more and more about our aging minds and the possibility of Alzheimer’s disease.
Brains change over time, just like our skin and muscles and organs. Actually, they begin to decline in our 20s! But some cognitive abilities continue to improve well into old age, some stay constant and some deteriorate.
Semantic memory – recalling concepts, vocabulary, language – improves for many elders. Procedural memory – how to do things – stays the same. Episodic memory – the what, where and when of our lives – and shorter-term memory decline with age. So does information processing, learning something new and multitasking. This is all normal aging, even though it can be challenging.
Aside from typical aging, stress, unhealthy routines in eating and sleeping, medication and a possible thyroid imbalance can all exacerbate our memory problems. See your doctor if you have questions.
Being physical, intellectual stimulation, social and community outreach, specific strategies (mnemonics, lists) and trying to stay focused on one thing at a time all help us improve our memories. Keeping a current and up-to-date calendar, following regular routines and organizing my house so everything is in its place (usually) really helps me.
Studies have shown also that the focused attention from mindfulness meditation can develop more sustained awareness and calm emotions that may interfere with memory.
Another interesting and surprising fallibility of our memories is that of recalling certain experiences that happened long ago. It is possible that any of us, elders or not, transfer our experiences and are not sure whether the experience was something we were told about, or read about, or dreamed about, or if it really happened. Once a story is constructed for whatever reason, and accompanied by vivid sense imagery and strong emotions, there may be no inner, psychological way of distinguishing truth from fantasy.
My brother recently verified for me that something never happened in our childhoods. All these years I thought it was real, and it actually influenced my life. With confirmation otherwise, I see that our memories have frailties, imperfections and distortions – also great flexibility and creativity. Check with your family to see if a story you’ve believed is really true.
So we see that our memories can do all sorts of “creative” things, both positive and negative. Normal aging practice is certainly challenging, but there are other things at play here, too. We must keep optimistic and constructive beliefs and attitudes about the whole process and be grateful for the rich lives we’re leading, and the ones we’ve all led.
Martha McClellan was a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus to the other end of life and written a book, “The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game.” Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.