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For the brain, there’s no such thing as over the hill

Does this happen to you? You start a task and get distracted, and the task you intended to do totally escapes your consciousness. Yesterday I stood in the hallway for a full minute with a bottle of spray cleaner in my hand trying to remember what I intended to clean. And then realized I’d just cleaned a surface in the kitchen and was in the process of putting the bottle away.

Or maybe it happens this way. I’m trying to remember something — the title of a movie or the name of an old friend — and I just cannot do it. It’s frustrating and unsettling. I struggle, take a few deep breaths and it may eventually come to me. Or it may not.

An article on the American Psychological Association’s website was comforting. It said, “For the human brain, there’s no such thing as over the hill.” We all tend to forget more things as we age; it’s disconcerting, but it’s to be expected. Over-worrying it does not help.

In the aging brain, “episodic” memory, such as “What did I have for breakfast?” and “source” memory, such as “Where did I learn about that new car?” decline the most notably. “Semantic” memory, i.e. words, facts, concepts, are less likely to be problematic. And “procedural” memory, such as “knowing how to ride a bicycle,” shows even less decline. “Implicit” learning, which is learning without conscious effort, seems to be pretty much spared into old age. See — comforting.

Truth be told, I had a birthday recently and I forgot how old I was. A friend asked me, and I gave myself a year beyond my actual age — woke up in the middle of the following night realizing that — and felt foolish. And slightly amused. I think I smiled and went back to sleep. And that was a good thing; because getting enough rest is critical to older-adult memory. As is nutrient-dense eating (fruits, vegetables, seafood) and aerobic exercise.

In recent weeks, it’s been hectic in our household, and I have not been especially observant about how much sleep or exercise I get. And I’ve definitely been making more cookies than salads.

The folks at the American Psychological Association suggest “a few behavior changes can help people stay sharp” well into their later years. They recommend “booster” learning and prescribed mental workouts. I forget exactly what those involve — but there’s always Google.

And that brings me to my reason for writing about this topic in the first place. I almost forgot. An important comfort for the aging brain is memory aids. We probably all have our own versions. I have a structured "to-do” list I attach to a clipboard — it makes me feel more in control to have my clipboard at-the-ready. And the calendar on my iPad is a godsend. The iPad is mounted on an easy-to-see stand on the kitchen counter (that would be the sparkly, just-cleaned kitchen counter), which helps me remember what I forget. Usually.

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