The Best of…Keeping Your Memory Sharp in Your Later Years

          Published October 2008, Pawtucket Times  

          In her twenties, while attending nursing school, Donna Policastro discovered she had a photographic memory.  Years later, even in her middle years, theProvidenceresident’s memory was still pretty good.  She had no need for appointment books or PDA’s to keep up with her hurried work schedule as a Registered Nurse.  Like an elephant, she never forgot, always remembering minute details, never missing an appointment or meeting.

             Approaching age 50, missing meetings and even some appointments forced Policastro, Executive Director of the Rhode Island State Nurses Association (RISNA), to keep a To-Do list and to use her computer’s calendar program. Policastro, now age 59, speculates that being overwhelmed at work because she had no support staff combined with not being able to say no to taking on new duties and responsibilities took a toll on her memory,

            Sometimes the aging baby boomer, like many,  would forget a colleague or patient’s name all together, or just not remember either their first or last moniker.  She became physically exhausted trying to remember their full name or little details of their initial meeting.  Sometimes it even bothered Policastro “to no end” when she could not remember an actor’s name she saw on a television program, becoming obsessed in an attempting to remember the name.

          As Policastro would ultimately discover when reading Aging With Grace, a book that described a longitudinal health study of an order of nuns, she was not losing her mind or becoming afflicted with dementia or devastating Alzheimer’s, her memory loss was due to normal aging. 

 Memory Gradually Declines with Age

           Laurence M. Hirshberg, Ph.D., Director of the Providence-based Neuro Development Center, would agree with Polacastro’s self-assessment of why her memory was not as sharp or clear as in her earlier years.  “Advancing age seems to cause gradual declines in some aspects of memory and thinking, brain structure, and brain functioning, while sparing others,” he says. 

            The Clinical Psychologist notes that research findings indicate that up to half of people over age 50 have mild forgetfulness linked to age-associated memory impairment,

           According to Dr. Hirshberg, who serves as a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown Medical School, as a person ages, there is often decline in one’s ability to encode new memories of events or facts, as well as the ability to hold the information you need to perform a simple task (for example, to dial a telephone number).  “Studies also show declines in memory of events, times, places, associated emotions., certain forms of reasoning, and numeric and verbal ability.  Procedural memory – remembering how to perform a process, for example playing the piano, is less affected by aging, as is memory of words and memory of emotional experience, both of which are enhanced with age,” Hirshberg says.

           “All of us show some forgetfulness at times, notes Dr. Hirshberg, especially when we forget where the car is parked, forget a persons name (but remember it later), forget events from the distant past, or forget parts of an experience.   He notes that signs of more serious memory problems include forgetting an experience or recent events, forgetting how to drive a car or read a clock, forgetting ever having known a particular person or loss of function, confusion or decreased alertness.

           Memory loss can be caused by a variety of factors, Dr. Hirshberg says, from lack of physical or mental activity, boredom, social isolation, stress, drug or alcohol use, smoking, poor nutrition, to an array of medical conditions that includes sleep disorders, head trauma, depression, diabetes, impairment to vision and hearing, head trauma, and even high blood pressure and cholesterol..

Living with Memory Loss

           Preventing memory loss in your later years can be as simple as staying socially active, keep learning and staying mentally active, eating nutritious meals, reducing stress and seeking help from medical conditions, Dr. Hirshberg suggested,  “Making lists and creating schedules can be effective strategies to increase memory skills. Many people use technological aids such as Palm Pilots.”  

            Even brain exercises can be helpful in keeping your memory sharp, Hirshberg says, specifically working cross word puzzles and soduko, playing chess, checkers, bridge and other card games. Reading, attending lectures, learning a new skill are also beneficial, along with using formal brain exercise programs for the computer (such a Mental Fitness, Brain Power, Captains Log, and Sharper Brain). Some examples of computerized brain exercise games can be seen at youcanstaysharp.com.

          Many aging baby boomers wonder when is the appropriate time to see their physician about memory loss.  Dr. Hirshberg says the rule of thumb that clinicians often use is, if you’re worried about your memory, it’s probably not that serious, but if your friends and relatives are worried about it, then it probably is more serious. . 

           Final note…You can also take part in a comprehensive mental fitness training program through the Stay Sharp Mental Fitness Center. This center offers brain fitness training exercise and EEG guided brain training to train your brain younger. For more information, visit youcanstaysharp.com or call 401 383 4104.

           Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based Freelance writing who has covered aging, health care and medical issues.  This article was published in October 2008.  Contact him at hweissri@aol.com .

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