Someone smart has positive things to say about aging and memory.

By Anita Garner.

Dr. Daniel Levitin

A neuroscientist writes about age-related memory loss and it’s positive and encouraging and wow I hope it’s all true.  This brief excerpt from his book appeared recently in the New York Times.

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Everyone Knows Memory Fails as You Age. But Everyone Is Wrong.

By Daniel J. Levitin
January 10, 2020

Even 20-year-olds forget the simplest things.

I’m 62 years old as I write this. Like many of my friends, I forget names that I used to be able to conjure up effortlessly. When packing my suitcase for a trip, I walk to the hall closet and by the time I get there, I don’t remember what I came for.

And yet my long-term memories are fully intact. I remember the names of my third-grade classmates, the first record album I bought, my wedding day.

This is widely understood to be a classic problem of aging. But as a neuroscientist, I know that the problem is not necessarily age-related.

Short-term memory contains the contents of your thoughts right now, including what you intend to do in the next few seconds. It’s doing some mental arithmetic, thinking about what you’ll say next in a conversation or walking to the hall closet with the intention of getting a pair of gloves.

Short-term memory is easily disturbed or disrupted. It depends on your actively paying attention to the items that are in the “next thing to do” file in your mind. You do this by thinking about them, perhaps repeating them over and over again (“I’m going to the closet to get gloves”). But any distraction — a new thought, someone asking you a question, the telephone ringing — can disrupt short-term memory. Our ability to automatically restore the contents of the short-term memory declines slightly with every decade after 30.

But age is not the major factor so commonly assumed. I’ve been teaching undergraduates for my entire career and I can attest that even 20-year-olds make short-term memory errors — loads of them. They walk into the wrong classroom; they show up to exams without the requisite No. 2 pencil; they forget something I just said two minutes before. These are similar to the kinds of things 70-year-olds do.

The relevant difference is not age but rather how we describe these events, the stories we tell ourselves about them. Twenty-year-olds don’t think, “Oh dear, this must be early-onset Alzheimer’s.” They think, “I’ve got a lot on my plate right now” or “I really need to get more than four hours of sleep.” The 70-year-old observes these same events and worries about her brain health. This is not to say that Alzheimer’s- and dementia-related memory impairments are fiction — they are very real — but every lapse of short-term memory doesn’t necessarily indicate a biological disorder.

In the absence of brain disease, even the oldest older adults show little or no cognitive or memory decline beyond age 85 and 90, as shown in a 2018 study. Memory impairment is not inevitable.

Some aspects of memory actually get better as we age. For instance, our ability to extract patterns, regularities and to make accurate predictions improves over time because we’ve had more experience. (This is why computers need to be shown tens of thousands of pictures of traffic lights or cats in order to be able to recognize them). If you’re going to get an X-ray, you want a 70-year-old radiologist reading it, not a 30-year-old one.

So how do we account for our subjective experience that older adults seem to fumble with words and names? First, there is a generalized cognitive slowing with age — but given a little more time, older adults perform just fine.

Second, older adults have to search through more memories than do younger adults to find the fact or piece of information they’re looking for. Your brain becomes crowded with memories and information. It’s not that you can’t remember — you can — it’s just that there is so much more information to sort through. A 2014 study found that this “crowdedness” effect also shows up in computer simulations of human memory systems.

Recently, I found myself in an office elevator in which all the buttons had been pushed — even though there were only three of us in the elevator. As the elevator dutifully stopped on every floor, one of the people standing next to me said, “Looks like some kid pressed all the buttons.” We all laughed. I thought for a moment and offered, “I was that kid about 50 years ago,” and we all laughed again. And then I thought: My memories of being 10 years old are clearer than my memories of 10 days ago. Shouldn’t that seem odd?

But in the warm, familiar privacy of my own mind, it didn’t seem odd at all: I am that same person. I don’t feel 50 years older. I can see the world through the eyes of that mischievous 10-year-old. I can remember when the taste of a Butterfinger candy bar was the most delectable thing in the world. I can remember the first time I encountered the grassy smell of a spring meadow. Such things were novel and exciting back then, and my sensory receptors were tuned to make new events seem both important and vivid.

I can still eat a Butterfinger and smell spring meadows, but the sensory experience has dulled through repetition, familiarity and aging. And so I try to keep things novel and exciting. My favorite chocolatier introduces new artisanal chocolates a few times a year and I make a point to try them — and to savor them. I go to new parks and forests where I’m more likely to encounter the smells of new grasses and trees, new animal musks.

When I find them, these things I remember for months and years, because they are new. And experiencing new things is the best way to keep the mind young, pliable and growing — into our 80s, 90s and beyond.

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Daniel J. Levitin is a neuroscientist and the author of “Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives,” from which this essay is adapted. He is a cognitive psychologist, bestselling author. He is Founding Dean of Arts & Humanities at the Minerva Schools at KGI in San Francisco, and Professor Emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University. He is the author of This Is Your Brain on Music, The World in Six Songs, The Organized Mind, and A Field Guide to Lies. He divides his time between Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is fifty the new forever?

It’s official.  I can no longer tell students from teachers.  It’s not just because I’m getting old.  (I am but that’s not the point this time.)  Everyone’s dressed alike.

Here comes the back-in-the-day part:  When we Aging Aquarians were in our teens, we couldn’t wait to be adults, so we copied them.  We dressed older as soon as we could.  We didn’t hate it.

In the 60’s we whipped around with lightning speed and decided to stay forever young. The rallying cry out of protest movements here in Northern California became, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

Today, fifty seems to be the outside age some acquaintances are comfortable with.  Some have already been fifty for quite a while and staying fifty forever doesn’t seem like such a stretch.  It might even be medically possible one day.

 

 

 

The End Of Youth

The End Of Youth surprised me one morning. It didn’t sneak up on me gradually, the way friends have related their own revelatory experiences with mirrors. For me, it came all of a sudden and I was hugely, comically surprised at the face in the mirror. It was as if the wrong person had jumped out of a cake in a sitcom. What? Who is that?

I’d ignored previous clues. Now they all piled on together. The checkout counter. Any given cash register where senior discounts were figured.

In the past, I’d ask for the discount and the person in charge made a fuss of saying, “No, you can’t be.” Some were sincere, others not, but I was fine with their reaction and fine with pulling out I.D. to prove I deserved the discount.

You can guess what’s coming. One day, everything changed. As I presented my merchandise, the cashier asked “And are you a member of our Senior Club?” That was the first time nobody said, “You can’t be,” and from that day forward, it happened more frequently.

It’s not a specific age. It happens to some of us  decades too soon, because an observer isn’t really observant or doesn’t know what aging looks like, or isn’t paying attention. It also happens the other way around for some of us, years later than we really deserve, and we are offered a grace period, while we pretend not to notice the changes in the mirror.

But it will arrive. It will come in some way at some time to you, personally, and that will be the beginning of many other things, some of them very good. It can be the beginning of figuring out the next stage, of deciding our own worth based not just on a set of physical markers.

This isn’t to say that I have the answers yet, but only to remind you, as a friend, that day is coming, the day you fully accept you are no longer young and that it’s okay.

(Writing partner, Dave, shares his thoughts on the subject. Dave’s Blog)

The End Of Youth?

The End Of Youth surprised me one morning. It didn’t sneak up on me gradually, the way friends have related their own revelatory experiences with mirrors. For me, it came all of a sudden and I was hugely, comically surprised at the face in the mirror. It was as if the wrong person had jumped out of a cake in a sitcom. What? Who is that?

I’d ignored previous clues. Now they all piled on together. The checkout counter. Any given cash register where senior discounts were figured.

In the past, I’d ask for the discount and the person in charge made a fuss of saying, “No, you can’t be.” Some were sincere, others not, but I was fine with their reaction and fine with pulling out I.D. to prove I deserved the discount.

You can guess what’s coming. One day, everything changed. As I presented my merchandise, the cashier asked “And are you a member of our Senior Club?” That was the first time nobody said, “You can’t be,” and from that day forward, it happened more frequently.

It’s not a specific age. It happens to some of us  decades too soon, because an observer isn’t really observant or doesn’t know what aging looks like, or isn’t paying attention. It also happens the other way around for some of us, years later than we really deserve, and we are offered a grace period, while we pretend not to notice the changes in the mirror.

But it will arrive. It will come in some way at some time to you, personally, and that will be the beginning of many other things, some of them very good. It can be the beginning of figuring out the next stage, of deciding our own worth based not just on a set of physical markers.

This isn’t to say that I have the answers yet, but only to remind you, as a friend, that day is coming, the day you fully accept you are no longer young and that it’s okay.

Seeing ourselves as others see us is not for the weak.

We’ve heard that aging is not for sissies.  Here’s another truth.  Accepting the reality in the mirror first thing in the morning is not for the faint of heart.  And the photo taken for my driver’s license is not necessarily the real me.  I choose not to see myself the way the Department of Motor Vehicles sees me.  You’d think with that photo in my wallet I’d believe it’s true.  Nope.  I’m able to convince myself that picture is a fluke, a trick of lighting. 

I need my illusions.  People who care anything about me know that and leave them alone.  Some days I’m my worst critic.  Other days I look in the mirror and decide I like it. Sometimes what I’m liking is not the way I really look, but the way I think I look.

If I could see myself as others see me, would I want to? 

1)  No. 

2)  Depends on what day it is.

3)  Please, no.

It’s hard work staying inside my bubble. The real world is filled with so many bubble-bursters, they don’t need any help from me.  So rather than seeing it as delusion, I prefer to think of it as an elaborate alternate-reality scheme, one that helps me to keep on keeping on.

Ó Anita Garner 2009

Birds Of A Feather

Here’s a question that comes up a lot lately:  Do you still hear from her/him? I used to think it was a badge of honor to say I’ve had the same friends forever, but just as all of my old clothes don’t fit anymore, neither do all the people I used to know.  I still cherish friendships that have endured for decades, but not all the people I used to know are people I want to be with today.  When we were younger, we clumped together for various reasons.  We formed parent groups, church groups, hobby groups, business groups and volunteering-in-the-community groups.

Today I’m not so big on groups.  One size doesn’t easily fit all.  The friend who makes me laugh may not be the one with whom I want to discuss problems.  Neither does one size fit forever.  I now have a shorter list of friends and a more focused to-do list.

Recently my daughter asked, “Remember when we used to have those parties at our house and we’d have a hundred people there?”  I wonder, where did I get all that energy?  I look at photos and examine old memories and they point to the fact that indeed, fun was being had, yet it’s not a situation I’d be drawn to now.

Have you ever fallen out of touch with someone and then you reconnect and it’s just different?  These days I let an extra beat go by before deciding to restore the relationship.  A few sentences after “Hello again” we may no longer have anything to talk about.

Letting go of relationships doesn’t happen without guilt.  I ask myself why don’t I want to be with these people?  The answer’s right there, but I’m sometimes slow to accept it.  History alone isn’t enough.  Seasons change.  Values change.  People change.

My friend, Catherine approaches life in the most realistic way of anyone I know.  She believes we need different kinds of relationships at different stages in life.  Not only does she let go of the ones that don’t fit anymore, but she quickly replaces them with people who do.

A few months ago, she hosted a party to celebrate her 90th birthday.  I’m one of her newer friends, considering we’ve only known each other about twenty years.  I take her counsel to heart and try to be more aware of the natural ebb and flow, but there will never be another like Catherine.  When I mention any age-related problem, she says, “Oh honey, you’ll work it out.  You’re still just a baby.”  Where would I find another friend who’ll take the trouble to lie to my face like that?

Ó By Anita Garner

Is It Just Me?

I can’t believe it’s time to start a new year.  I also can’t believe this is me sounding exactly like every older person in the world talking about how quickly time flies.  

Days go by faster than I can mark them off on my calendar – or more accurately my Day-At-A-Glance appointment book and ever-present To Do lists.

There’s both good and bad about this.  The good?  We don’t have to wait too long for anything we’re looking forward to.  When we were kids, it seemed the day after tomorrow would never get here.  Now?  Just turn around.  Here it is.  The bad, of course, is that it’s possible for several days to slip past while we’re still deciding what to do about next week.

As inevitable as aging is (someone said if we’re lucky we’ll get old) so is the need to make time count for something.

I’m not a resolutions person, but I do have intentions that matter to me,  and one is to make better use of the time allotted.  That’s about the only thing I stand a chance of affecting.   There’s nothing wrong with a modest goal to ring in the New Year.

Ó By Anita Garner