"Where did I put those keys?" ... "What was it I wanted when I opened the frig door?" ... What was that phone number I just looked up?"
Are you old enough that this sounds familiar? Actually, memory problems like these affect most people at some time, but getting older can make such forgetting worse.
These memory problems happen because you lose attention and get distracted. As you get older, it is easier to get distracted. It is as if we get "attention deficit disorder (ADD)" as we age.
A brain-scan study at the University of Toronto found that older people, compared to young adults, have decreased brain activity in brain areas that enable concentration This means that older brains can't focus well, because the parts of the brain that enable concentration don't get active enough.
To compound the problem, older people show increased activity in parts of the brain that don't normally get activated during memory tasks in younger people. The explanation for this is that the brains of older people need to assign the attentiveness and memory work to more parts of brain. That is, they have to recruit more circuitry to do the same job young brains can do with fewer brain resources. However, you look at it, the findings document an age-related decline in the brain's ability to focus its neural resources on memory tasks. What may be most worrisome is that the brain shows such signs of decline around age 40.
Another study at the University of Illinois examined age-related increase in distractibility. Researchers recorded brain electrical responses in young adults and old subjects (65-78) who were listening to distracting bursts of sound. In young people, brain responses to repeated, irrelevant tones were quickly suppressed but responses to distracting sound were more persistent in older adults. Yet another study, this one from the U. California at San Francisco, confirmed that older people tend to have difficulty in ignoring distractions and irrelevant stimuli. Subjects performed a memory task of ignoring a previous stimulus that was still in working memory. In other words, the subject had to suppress the memory of irrelevant stimuli. The results showed that older individuals could focus on pertinent information but had difficulty in ignoring irrelevant or distracting information that was contained in working memory. However, about half of the older adults did not have this problem. So let us not come away with the conclusion that memory deficits in the elderly are inevitable.
Enough already! What you would really like to know is what to do about attention deficit if you have it.
One general approach is to keep your brain working hard as you age. Good examples include chess or learning a new language or a musical instrument. Think of it like exercise for the brain, which strengthens the neural circuits in those parts of the brain that have to do the memory work and distinguish irrelevant from relevant information.
Another general strategy is to reduce the distractions in our life, at least distractions that are present when we are trying to remember something. Multi-tasking is hard enough to do when you are young. On those occasions when I forget why I opened the refrigerator door, it is always because I let myself get distracted between the time I decided what I wanted and the time when I opened the door.
Focus, focus, focus. We older people need to work at paying attention. Here are some tips on how to do that:
• Assign importance to paying attention and remembering. If you don't think something is important, your brain won't commit enough circuitry to handle the information.
• Expect and demand of yourself successful remembering. Make forgetting unacceptable.
• Work with small chunks of information at any one time. By lowering the memory load, the brain's limited resources can deal with it more effectively.
• Be interested in what you are trying to remember. Don't let it be boring. Boring is a state of mind that you can do something about.
• Get engaged with the information. Ask yourself or others questions about it. Think about it in different ways.
• Try to stay rested, alert, and sharp. Nobody focuses well when they are tired.
To summarize, the best way to pay attention is through force of will. To remember, you have to want to remember and accordingly force yourself to pay attention.
Copyright 2010, W. R. Klemm
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