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by Ken Budd
Updated July 8, 2022
This is the age when we start asking that well-known question, “Where did I put my keys?” In terms of memory, the areas that decline most include episodic memories (remembering what you ate for lunch) and source memories (remembering where you read about something), according to the American Psychological Association. But what you consider memory problems may be due to reduced attention and processing speed.
“We have more trouble sustaining attention for important information and holding it for longer,” explains clinical psychologist Cynthia Green, president of Total Brain Health in Montclair, New Jersey. It’s harder to filter out irrelevant information — that’s why older people often complain about noise in a restaurant — which is why older adults are more easily distracted, a study from the University of Cambridge found. And that makes it harder for them to encode and retrieve information.
To solve the problem, focus more on focusing. “If you're learning my name, you need to focus on it before you move on to something else in the conversation,” Green says. “If you don't, you won't acquire the information. It's not that you forgot it. You never got it to begin with.”
Changing your habits can pay mental dividends. About one-third of the risk factors for dementia are potentially modifiable through lifestyle changes, a a July 2017 Lancet report shows. These include exercising, quitting smoking and treating depression. Preventing or minimizing heart disease is also important. High blood pressure, diabetes and obesity can affect blood vessels and neural connections throughout the brain, explains Jennifer Rose Molano, M.D., of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
Consider incorporating the following habits into your daily life.
• “Idiosyncratic responding during movie-watching predicted by age differences in attentional control,” Neurobiology of Aging, November 2015. For this study, researchers used a functional MRI to scan the brains of 218 adults ages 18 to 88 while they watched a short movie. Results showed that older adults were less likely to respond in an appropriate and timely way to events occurring in the movie. The researchers posit the results may have implications for attention and comprehension in the real world. Read the full study.
• “Dementia prevention, intervention, and care,” The Lancet, July 2017. This scientific paper explores the latest research behind treating and preventing the symptoms of dementia. Read a summary of the paper. (A fee is required to access the full paper.)
• “Engage Your Brain: GCBH Recommendations on Cognitively Stimulating Activities,” Global Council on Brain Health, 2017. Read about and download the full report.
• “Poor sleep quality is associated with increased cortical atrophy in community-dwelling adults,” Neurology, September 2014. In this study, researchers examined the sleep habits of 147 adults and gave them brain scans. They found evidence that poor sleep quality may be either a cause or a consequence of brain atrophy. As a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Sleep Fragmentation, Cerebral Arteriolosclerosis, and Brain Infarct Pathology in Community-Dwelling Older People,” Stroke, January 2016. In this study, researchers analyzed data from 315 adults who were part of the Rush Memory and Aging Project. As a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• “Distinct Brain and Behavioral Benefits from Cognitive vs. Physical Training: A Randomized Trial in Aging Adults,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, July 2016. Read the full study.
• “Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, April 2017. In this study, researchers analyzed data from 39 studies and found evidence that exercise improves cognitive function in people over the age of 50. The researchers recommend a combination of aerobic and resistance exercise. Read the full study.
• “Longitudinal Relationships between Caloric Expenditure and Gray Matter in the Cardiovascular Health Study,” Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, May 2016. In this study, researchers analyzed data from 876 adults, including brain scans, cognitive tests and leisure activity questionnaires, and found evidence that a variety of calorie-burning physical activities are associated with larger gray matter volumes in the elderly, regardless of cognitive status. Read the full study.
• “Examining the Acute Effects of Hatha Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation on Executive Function and Mood,” Mindfulness, December 2016. To compare the effects of hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation on executive function and mood, researchers had 31 hatha yoga practitioners in their 20s and 30s complete a session of hatha yoga, a session of meditation, and a session of reading. Based on tests of executive function and self-reports about mood, researchers found that hatha yoga and meditation benefit both equally. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Estimating brain age using high-resolution pattern recognition: Younger brains in long-term meditation practitioners,” NeuroImage, July 2016. In this study, researchers analyzed data such as brain scans from 50 long-term meditators and 50 control subjects between the ages of 24 and 77. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Changes in brain volume and cognition in a randomized trial of exercise and social interaction in a community-based sample of non-demented Chinese elders,” Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, June 2012. In this study, 120 elderly adults were randomly assigned to either a tai chi, walking, social interaction or no intervention (control) group for 40 weeks. They also completed cognitive tests and had MRIs done. The researchers found that the tai chi group had the most improvements in cognitive tests in addition to showing increases in brain volume. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)