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'Welcome to the new old age'

Are you worried about being increasingly more forgetful? Does it take longer to make simple decisions and process new facts? Were you the one who put a hot pad in the refrigerator?

It's part of our aging reality. It's called "transience." Simply put, our memory abilities fade over time. Daniel Schacter, author of "The Seven Sins of Memory," refers to it as "Boomers Lament."

Memory challenges include occasional difficulty finding the right word (tip-of-the-tongue-syndrome) and absent-mindedness (misplacing your car keys). It can be sobering, and sometimes a little embarrassing, when you're in the middle of one of those memory lapses. But, in fact, worrying excessively about forgetting your granddaughter's middle name or a luncheon appointment with a friend only exacerbates the problem. If we stress about this business of forgetting, we increase our likelihood of having it happen more often.

I'm here today to offer comfort and perspective — and some new ways to think about memory difficulties.

We experience random forgetting more frequently on days when we've rested poorly or eaten too many high-sugar, trans-fatty foods. Lifestyle is important to good recall. So, once you've finished reading this column, maybe you should take a short nap. Then have a bowl of colorful berries, a slice of whole-grain toast and take a 20-minute aerobic stroll. While you're doing that, think about this. Studies have found our minds actually get sharper as we age in a number of vitally important areas.

Try these illustrations. Researchers at the University of Michigan presented "Dear Abby" letters to a sample of 200 people across the adult age range. These folks were asked to offer their advice. The study found that subjects in their 60s did a better job of responding. They were notably more competent "at imagining different points of view, thinking of multiple resolutions and suggesting compromises."

According to a 2007 study in the Journal of Gerontology, older adults were found to be particularly good at solving interpersonal dilemmas because their "social intelligence" was more developed. According to the study's author, we "get better at sizing-up people, at understanding how relationships work and at not getting into an argument unless we mean to."

Another study out of the University of Michigan found that aging air-traffic controllers (now there's a cognitively challenging job) "excel at navigating, juggling multiple aircraft simultaneously and avoiding collisions." Accent on the words, "aging" and "excel."

Many skills take decades to master and fully ripen only as we become older. Examples include more thoroughly understanding the crux of a problem and maintaining emotional buoyancy.

A recently published book by Judith Horstman, "The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain," shouts "Welcome to the new old age!" It suggests there's "never been a better time to grow old."

Another expert on aging issues, cellular neurobiologist John Morrison, says it this way: "Aging is not a mild form of dementia."

Of course, it isn't. So take that hot pad out of the refrigerator and use it to pat yourself on the back. And as for me, I'm off to feed the neighbor's cat. Or was that next week?

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor in public health and human sciences. You can reach her at 541-261-2037 or Sharon@hmj.com.