We all have moments of forgetfulness about where we put the keys, why we walked into a room, or what an object is called. Most likely, this reflects age-related changes in thinking skills. “In terms of brain function, everyone has a decline over time in all areas, with the exception of vocabulary.”
How memory works
Memory involves three processes: encoding, recording, and retrieval. The brain receives and encodes (takes in) new information; the brain then records (stores) the information; finally, the brain retrieves information when you need it.
Many brain regions are involved in this process. For example, the cerebral cortex — the large outer layer of the brain — acquires new information as input from our senses. The amygdala tags information as being worthy of storage. Nearby, the hippocampus stores memories. And the frontal lobes help us consciously retrieve information.
The aging memory
Many people notice a difference in memory starting in their 50s. That’s when age-related chemical and structural changes can begin in brain regions involved with memory processing, such as the hippocampus or the frontal lobes. These changes may slow processing speed, making it hard to recall familiar names or words.
Other factors may be at play as well. “Working memory — a mental scratch pad that allows us to use important information throughout the day — is susceptible to depression, anxiety, and stress,” explains Dr. Salinas, “and a lack of sleep can affect the brain’s retention and use of information.”
A medication side effect may also affect memory. For example, if you use an anti-anxiety drug like clonazepam (Klonopin), its sedating side effects can make your brain less alert and more sluggish. This in turn makes it more challenging for your brain to carry out the essential encoding, recording, and retrieval steps of memory.
1. Repeat what you hear out loud, such as someone’s name, or an address, or a new idea. Repetition increases the likelihood you’ll record the information and be able to retrieve it later.
2. Make a note of people you need to call, errands to run, and appointments.
3. Make associations between old and new information. Connect a person’s first name to something familiar. For example, if the person’s name is Sandy, imagine that person on a beach.