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How to Cope With Normal Brain Changes

As we age, a couple things happen to our thinking. First, the rate at which we process information slows down. The world, though it is moving at the same pace as before, seems to be coming at us faster. Because of this, we miss stuff. This can look and feel like forgetting. But what happens is that your brain did not have an opportunity to remember the information in the first place. Second, we become more inefficient at multi-tasking. When you are multi-tasking, you are not actually doing two (or more) things at once. You are switching attention between tasks. This becomes more difficult as we age and can also often look like memory problems, but it is learning and attention skills that are impacted.

While there are some online programs that offer “memory” training for a fee, the research does not support their generalizability to other domains or prevent slowing and progression of dementia.  

The best things you can do to improve learning and attention are related to general health and wellness, including minimizing any cardiovascular risk factors, taking your medications as prescribed and following up with your medical provider. Physical activity is also important. Your brain is just like your other organs and benefits from regular exercise.

Ways to cope:

Minimizing distractions can be helpful. For example, turn off any or all notifications from your cell phone. Every time your phone “dings” it causes your mind to shift away from what you were focusing on and you will likely lose track of whatever you were doing.

Use mnemonic strategies to aid encoding of new information. For example, use a location to help you remember. Associate something you want to remember to do in the future with a location that you anticipate you will see. For example, to remember my medications, I might tell myself to ‘remember take your medications when you brush your teeth in the morning’. When I wake up and see my toothbrush – that will cue me to remember to take my medications. Chunking can help you recall large amounts of information by grouping similar items together. For instance, I need to remember a list of 12 items to pick up for the grocery store. Rather than trying to remember all 12 items, I can divide them up and group them by type:

                  

                   Canned goods

                                      Apples

                                      Bananas

                                      Carrots

 

                   Meat

                                      Chicken

                                      Ground beef

 

                   Dry goods

                                      Cereal

                                      Oatmeal

                                      Bread

                                      Flour

                                      Sugar

 

                   Household

                                      Soap

                                      Paper towels

Your brain naturally seeks patterns and by chunking the information together, each individual item in the group will help with memory encoding and retrieval of the other items.

Sleep cannot be overestimated. There is research coming out suggesting that our brain is very actively processing, storing, and organizing information we’ve taken in during the day while we sleep. Sleep is also an opportunity to our brain to clean out the “junk” (or amyloid-Beta), which may be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/deep-sleep-gives-your-brain-a-deep-clean1/)

There is research to suggest that mindfulness can help with attention problems. Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present, and learning to manage thoughts, feelings, and sensations that may interfere with your ability to stay focused in the present. Mindfulness training, focused on the development of attention, may be associated with significant improvements in attention abilities—which can improve memory as you are better able to encode new information. Relaxation and reduced stress are wonderful byproducts.

Here are some mindfulness resources:

It’s normal to feel like you are having more problems with memory as you age. Try these coping strategies to improve your attention and you will likely notice an impact on your memory.

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Last Updated: 5/28/21