You walk into a room and forget why you’re there.
Standing in the parking lot, for a few uncomfortable moments, you have no recollection of where you left your car.
In the middle of telling a story, you lose your train of thought. Your mind races but you can’t remember what you were talking about. So you begin to awkwardly string together fragmented sentences, hoping in the meantime to get the train back on track.
What you’ve discovered is a new reality of life – that as we get older there will be momentary lapses of memory. Sometimes just a flash as we try to locate the word we’ve lost or sometimes a little longer while we search for the name of the actor in the movie we can’t recall.
But beyond the frustration and a little embarrassment, it’s usually not a matter of concern. It can, however, convince us that it might be time to start working.
A healthy brain is defined as one that can perform the mental processes of cognition, including our intuition, judgment, language, memory and the ability to learn new things. But not all of our brain activities are equal.
Intelligence or knowledge that’s created over time remains pretty stable with age. Recollections we’ve stored for years also stay somewhat preserved, but recent memories are typically more vulnerable. The ability to solve problems that we’ve faced before tends to endure and our language skills remain the same but retrieving a word can take longer or completely escape us. However, this information isn’t lost, it just proves to be more elusive.
READ MORE: The Cost of Anxiety and How to Worry Less
The debate continues about whether there is anything that can be done to keep our head about us as we age but most land on the positive side. Beyond avoiding situations that obviously are detrimental to our brains, here are at least four ways you can intervene and maybe sharpen your thoughts.
It’s known that stress can impair our memory and ability to learn or cope. Research often recommends exercise to reduce our anxiety. Along with its physical benefits, if you haven’t already, get moving.
There are several medical conditions that can impair our cognitive abilities, including the medication that we’re taking. And don’t underestimate the value of a good diet. Research on those who followed the MIND diet found they experienced a slower decline in thinking skills.
Studies have shown that challenging ourselves can also slow age-related declines. There’s no shortage of ideas to choose from, whether it’s picking up an engaging hobby, learning a new skill or playing brain games. Anything that’s intellectually stimulating will work. If you’re really ambitious, try learning a new language or take a continuing education course on an unfamiliar subject.
Consider ways to retain and store new information like coming up with cues to jog your memory. Try following a routine like always hanging the keys on a hook by the door, or using a helpful tool like a pill box or calendar. Also, taking the time to intentionally process new information works for many. The next time you’re introduced to someone, try to associate a way to recall their name.
For most, these aging irritations aren’t much more than inconveniences or mild embarrassments. But if you’re concerned that it’s getting worse or more serious, it’s always a good idea to see a doctor. Rules of thumb when it’s time to schedule an appointment usually include these symptoms:
You’re having trouble remembering how to do something you’ve done many times.
Memory loss often goes hand-in-hand with humorous stories about aging. Everyone would laugh when someone in my family would say if his memory was any worse, he could plan his own surprise party. There’s nothing wrong with looking at the lighter side of aging but we need to be careful not to give in to stereotypes as they often are internalized and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We all have heard about or maybe even experienced an older person in our lives that continuously retold the same stories or could forget that you saw them yesterday yet replay specific details about an event in their childhood. It’s true that our memory does seem to need a little nudge some days. But research has shown that when people were exposed to negative stereotypes about aging and memory they did worse on memory tasks.
If you start believing there’s nothing you can do, you’ll likely put in less effort at improving your memory and then eventually you may experience cognitive decline. But when we believe we are still in control, at least for the most part, we increase our chances of keeping our brains sharp.
And we’re going to need all our wits about us to navigate the rest of aging’s surprises. Or at least to find our car.
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