Baby boomers learning to deal with, defeat brain drain
CHAMPAIGN – When baby boomer Cammy Seguin started to tell her son the names of her two favorite songs by the Moody Blues, her memory seemed to be taking a little lunch break.
"I went totally brain-dead," she recalls with a laugh.
Five minutes later, she remembered the names: "I Know You're Out There Somewhere" and "Your Wildest Dreams." But as for her son, Seguin says, "I just knew he thought I lost my mind."
Ask most folks over 50 if they've experienced this kind of brain fog, and you'll hear tales of vanishing car keys, forgotten appointments, and (we live to amuse our children) mysterious word mangles that produce such verbal gems as "Please fold the TV, and, no, you can't watch more laundry tonight."
A family life educator at the University of Illinois Extension, Seguin says she likes to tell people it takes her longer to pull out song titles because she has a lot more memories to go through to reach them.
Luckily, she says, this kind of midlife absent-mindedness is usually nothing to worry about.
"Those kinds of things are normal," she adds. "We do change as we get older."
Think of your brain as a computer that selectively sorts and stores the information of your life. The older you get, the less efficient your brain becomes at processing information. And things you could once recall in a flash take a little longer to retrieve.
Something else that seems to contribute to midlife brain drain, according to Seguin: With aging comes a higher sensitivity to distractions, making it harder to focus on the task at hand.
Say you go to get something out of your refrigerator and suddenly hear your neighbor start up the lawn mower.
A minute later, there you are, staring into the refrigerator without a clue to what you wanted. Milk? Pickles?
Behind all these symptoms are subtle changes taking place in the brain as people age.
The brain is always changing, says UI psychology Professor Art Kramer. But by midlife, there is less turnover of new neurons, the nerve cells that transmit and process information through the body. Production of chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters also slows down.
And if that's not enough, your lifestyle catches up with you. Studies have suggested a high-fat diet, too much alcohol, lack of exercise and a high-stress lifestyle can all affect your cognitive fitness down the road.
"We learn a lot by the time we get to middle age," Kramer says, "But we also have done some things we wish we didn't do."
Good lifestyle habits can also make a difference: A study led by Kramer and University of Pittsburgh psychology professor Kirk Erickson found that while a part of the brain necessary for memory, the hippocampus, shrinks with age, physical fitness can have an effect on hippocampus size.
Older adults who were physically fit, the study found, had a larger hippocampus and better spatial memory – the part of memory necessary for recording information about your environment and navigating your way through it.
Memory and health
Bottom line: You just can't separate your overall health from your memory, says Kathy Marren, a geriatric nurse practitioner at the Provena Center for Healthy Aging in Champaign.
Eating a healthful diet and getting enough exercise reduce the chances of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers, all diseases associated with memory decline, she says.
Some other factors that can affect cognitive function, Marren says: depression, fatigue, stress, vitamin B-12 deficiency and an underactive thyroid.
That's why she encourages people beginning to experience memory loss to start out with a trip to the doctor, to rule out more serious health problems masquerading as just "normal aging."
Marren, who performs memory assessments on older adults at Provena, said she sees stress as a big factor among the middle-aged sandwich generation caring for both their own families and aging parents.
One way to look at the impact of stress and depression on how well your brain performs: Consider how well you really focus when you're driving and talking on your cell phone at the same time, Kramer says.
"We can think of stress and depression as that added load on your ability to process information," he says.
How do you know when absent-mindedness is turning into a serious memory loss problem? When it begins to interfere with every day life, says Marren and Seguin.
One way experts describe the difference between normal "benign forgetfulness" that doesn't really hurt anybody and serious memory loss: It's one thing to misplace your car keys now and then, and quite another to not know what to know what to do with your keys once you find them.
What it's really all about is aging successfully, Marren says.
And that has a lot to do with your ability to adapt. People will lose some good health as they age. They'll lose friends, "but if you can learn to adapt, you'll age better," she adds.
Exercise can do more than help fight off disease and help your memory, Marren says. It can help maintain balance, coordination and concentration. It can help reduce stress.
One of the best favors you can do for yourself in later middle age is fight the desire to coast to retirement, according to Marren. In other words, excessive comfort isn't really what's best for you.
She and Seguin say people need to challenge themselves to remain mentally sharp.
That doesn't mean you have to go sky-diving, Marren says, but most people can learn a new hobby or take a class.
"I think you have to still be teachable, look for new things to do," she advises.
When she was in her 40s, Marren decided to go back to school to get an advanced degree in nursing and found a new passion for working with older adults. So she also picked up a specialty in geriatrics.
Was it easy? Her first course was online, she recalls, and she'd never used a computer before.
Seguin says it may take a bit longer for older people to learn new things, but it's usually possible if the interest is there.
"I tell people you can teach an old dog new tricks," she adds, "But the dog has to want to learn it."
Another way to hang on to more of your memory: Remain socially active and connected to other people, she and Marren say.
Too much isolation can lead to anxiety and depression. And how can you keep your mind sharp when you don't talk to anybody all day?
"People can challenge you," Seguin says. "You need to be around other people."
Even better, Marren advises: Reach out and help somebody else. In your 50s and beyond, it's time to help the younger generation coming along, she says.
And your brain will benefit from the extra social connection and the feeling of being needed.
"Have an attitude of gratitude," Marren advises.
Want a sharper memory as you get older?
Here are some tips from experts that can do for your memory what crunches can do for your abs:
1. Eat a healthful diet to feed your brain as well as the rest of your body.
2. Get plenty of aerobic exercise, as long as your doctor approves.
3. Your brain needs a challenge, so try to learn something new every day. Read. Do crossword puzzles. Learn a new hobby. Take a different route home. Try using your other hand to hold your toothbrush.
4. Don't isolate yourself. Maintain social contacts and regular conversation with others.
5. As much as you can, reduce your stress load.
6. Create an image in your mind of something you want to remember. Or try associating something you want to remember with something you already know.
7. Use a sound, such as a kitchen timer, to help you remember something,
8. Arrange things in your home to jog your memory. Keys, for example, can go in the refrigerator on top of your lunch bag.
9. Try verbal cues to make yourself less anxious about the things you might forget, like turning off the stove. Try saying out loud a few times: I turned off the stove. I won't need to go back and check it again.
10. Make a list of what you need to do, and take notes of things you need to remember.
11. Repeat names in conversations.
12. Do things when you remember them, instead of putting them off.
13. Avoid multitasking.
14. Identify places for important items and always keep them in the same place.
15. If you find yourself becoming increasingly forgetful, see your doctor. Sometimes memory loss is the result of physical problems that need medical attention.
Sources: Cammy Seguin, University of Illinois Extension; Kathy Marren, Provena Center for Healthy Aging.