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Time for a year-end memory workout

Don’t think of this as a newspaper column. Think of it as an end-of-year memory workout. Of all the  small calamities that may have befallen you in the last year, those moments when you have forgotten something you thought you really should have remembered may have been the most anxiety-producing. 

Toward the end of his life, Robert Louis Stevenson said, “I have a grand memory for forgetting.” We can all relate. It may involve things such as failing to turn off an appliance when you leave the house. “Did I leave the iron on?” Did you turn off the oven? Sometimes it’s bigger issues:  Your granddaughter’s 21st birthday?  Your daily medications?

As the demographic of aging people explodes (“Every day 10,000 people turn 65 and that will continue to happen for the next 19 years,” per a recent Harvard study), we are going to hear more about how to strengthen memory function.  And hopefully, we will also hear more about how to “stress less” when it comes to our forgetting behaviors. My ever-favorite comment comes from my gerontologist friend, Dr. Vicki Schmall, who says, “You brain is like a library, and an old library has many books — so it naturally takes longer to retrieve one.”

If you hang around any group of elders, the topic will come up — perhaps as a joke. (“There are four signs of old age: The first is memory loss, and I can’t remember the other three!”)  Those jokes often result in a group laugh — which is good because laughter is aerobic, and regular aerobic activity helps improve memory. Maybe those one-liners are so funny they even result in a group hug — also good for enhancing memory function. And believe it or not, research suggests hugs also help our immune systems stave off colds and the flu. No kissing — just hugging. 

But let’s get back to the topic at hand.  Where was I? Oh yes … as we age, we accumulate a vast storehouse of experiences that tumble and cavort in our minds vying for brain space.  But studies show that the aging brain is very adaptable; if we push ourselves cognitively, eat nutrient-dense food and get restorative sleep each night, we should be just fine.

That said, little things mean a lot. There’s a research study referenced in the “The Senior Moments Memory Workout” by Tom Friedman (great book, by the way) that suggests talking to someone for just 10 minutes “can improve your memory and boost your performance on tests of cognitive skills.”  

There’s another way to look at this of course. Let’s call it: “Blessed are the forgetful.” That phrase is also used in the book mentioned previously, but the concept was originally introduced in a New York Times article years ago (Benedict Carey, June 2007). “It may seem like a paradox, but forgetting is an important part of remembering.” Your ability to block certain unimportant memories and tune out irrelevant information frees up your ability to recall those things that are more significant to you. Let your brain “play favorites” with remembering.

Your neighbor’s birthday is not as important to recall as your granddaughter’s birthday, and taking you medications in a timely way, and as directed, is the most important of all. Remember that. 

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at Sharon@hmj.com.