by Carol Weeg
Everyone has memory lapses. We blank on our long-time neighbor’s name, or we forget the cake in the oven until the smoke detector goes off. But being forgetful in midlife is particularly common: Studies show that one-half to two-thirds of people 50 and older notice memory changes. There are as many reasons for this as there are steps to remedy it.
Memory has three stages: learning, consolidation, and recall. If you’re invited to a friend’s surprise 50th birthday party, for example, first you must learn the four Ws: where, when, what to wear, and whom to bring. Next, the party information needs to become stored in your memory, or consolidated. Finally, when the time comes, your brain must recall it. This sounds simple, but many factors influence whether you ever actually attend that party.
Learning: You’re more likely to learn the information in the first place if you pay close attention to it. But women are multi-taskers, and as we listen we may also be loading the dishwasher and shooing the dog away from the cat’s food. As we get older, interruptions distract us more, which can interfere with this initial learning.
Consolidation: Next, your brain is more likely to store a memory if it relates to a long-term memory you already have, such as attending this same friend’s surprise 40th birthday party. In addition, research shows that sleeping well is important to memory consolidation, and for many women in midlife, menopause and sleep is elusive.
Recall: Now your brain must retrieve this information. The stumbling block is that each memory gets stored in the brain as a unique pattern of nerve cells, but similar memories have partially overlapping patterns. So you’re trying to remember the name of the restaurant where the party’s being held, but what comes to mind is the burger joint you went to last weekend. This blocks out the information you need and leads to that “it’s on the tip of my tongue” feeling.
How can you increase the odds that you’ll remember your friend’s party, and give your memory an overall boost? Try the following:
- Get enough sleep. A study at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that memorization skills were best in people who got eight hours of sleep a night. Those who slept only four or six hours a night performed as badly as a group who stayed awake for three days.
- Exercise. Yet another reason to work out is that physical fitness and mental fitness go hand in hand. A MacArthur Foundation study showed that physical activity increases chemicals that nourish nerve cells in the brain. Exercise also reduces the risk of high blood pressure and other illnesses that can cause memory loss.
- De-stress. When we’re stressed, our bodies are flooded with cortisol, the same hormone that’s released during labor and delivery that allows us to forget the pain of childbirth–a good thing under those circumstances, but bad when we’re trying to find the car keys.
- Eat healthy. The same diet that’s good for the body turns out to be good for the brain, one rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats from fish and nuts, and low in saturated fat (found in meat and dairy products) and trans fat (mostly used in processed foods).
- Avoid multitasking. New research at the University of Michigan shows that it takes more time and is more effort for the brain to skip from task to task than it would require to do one job at a time.
- Keep learning. Scientists believe that giving your brain a workout with challenging activities-a class, reading, a hobby–fosters communication between brain cells that helps strengthen memory.
Making a few healthy lifestyle changes can reduce forgetfulness in midlife women. Try it, and help restore the edge to your mind and your memory.
About the author: Carol Weeg writes and edits Finding Our Way: Wit and Wisdom for Adventurous Women, the newsletter for thinking women in midlife. Carol inspires women to explore their lives today–from work, to relationships, to dealing with perimenopause and menopause (is it hot in here?). Visit Carol Weeg on the Web at http://www.findingourway.com to download a free copy of Just Keep Laughing, the best of humor from Finding Our Way.
© Carol Weeg, 2008. Finding Our Way.
The information in this article is for educational purposes only, and is not intended as medical advice.