Our memories are malleable at the best of times, but they become even more unreliable as we age. That’s when we go into the next room for something and then forget what we went in there for. On the other hand, we still retain detailed memories of important things that happened years ago. Why?
Every thought, every idea, every imagination and every feeling and emotion has its roots in our memory. Our senses are geared to make associations with memories of events, places, people, pieces of music, and particularly, smells.
These snippets of information not only provide clues that serve to stimulate memories, but they also act as catalysts for the kind of reminiscences we all experience when we recall detailed memories of things past.
Recollection though, is something distinct from familiarity, which is the general feeling that we have experienced something before but are not quite able to put our finger on every detail of the event. For example, you might see someone who instantly looks familiar, but cannot recall exactly who they are. This experience of familiarity happens very fast – you can quickly detect that you may know the person – but recollecting the details of who they are takes longer.
The reason for this is that separate areas of the brain are responsible for recognition and association. The hippocampus is involved in forming the associations that help recollection, whereas the nearby perirhinal and entorhinal cortices appear to be more important for familiarity.
We know that recollection – the ability to retrieve details of an event – decline as people get older, whereas familiarity remains about the same regardless of age. Studies have shown that areas of the brain such as the hippocampus (important for recollection) tend to decline in volume, whereas the areas that support familiarity such as the entorhinal cortex remain more intact regardless of age.
We know that memory does not work as a flawless tape-recorder – we not only forget information, but also misremember it, even if we are convinced that we recollect vividly and accurately. Older adults find it increasingly difficult to retrieve specific and accurate details of an event, which means they could be more susceptible to gaps in memory and false recall.
So… can anything be done to inhibit or reverse these changes?
There are no magic pills or potions that can protect our memories from decline, but research points to a number of strategies that can help us with the impact of ageing on memory. One popular suggestion is to do lots of crossword and sudoku puzzles. I believe this works – doing intelligent puzzles keeps the brain functioning – we should exercise it as much as possible to keep it sharp.
The problem is, there is little evidence to support this idea – the best you can expect is to get very good at doing crosswords and sudoku. But transferring those skills to other kinds of abilities remains stubbornly and frustratingly out of reach. Doing crosswords and sodoku won’t necessarily improve your ability to reason abstractly or remember more information. Likewise, claims that ‘brain training’ will ward off cognitive decline or dementia are equally false.
But there is some light at the end of the tunnel! Perhaps surprisingly, the method most likely to help is to simply engage in more physical exercise, particularly in mild (and I stress mild) aerobic exercise.
The research – and evidence – in favour of the benefits of exercise to both physical and mental health, mental ability and memory, is much more robust than that of brain training. Just a brisk walk or swim has been proved to be beneficial to your memory. Areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, show an increase in volume as a result of aerobic exercise.
So the best advice for improving your memory is to use that half hour you might have spent doing a sudoku puzzle to go for a nice walk with a friend instead.
Alertness decreases and reaction times slow down in old age but scientists from the University of Montreal claim that learning to play a musical instrument could prevent brains succumbing to some of the effects of old age.
Musicians have extremely rapid reaction times – they can interpret the notes and phrasing on the page and translate that into sound by incredible feats of manual dexterity, whilst at the same time listening to and fitting in with . her members of an ensemble. It is a unique, complex and highly accomplished skill. It’s something non-musicians cannot do. The only professionals with faster reaction times are fighter pilots.
Nonetheless, the researchers decided to compare the reaction times of 16 musicians with 19 non-musicians.
All the musicians had started playing between the ages of three and 10 and had received at least seven years training. There were eight pianists, three violinists, two percussionists, one double bassist, one harpist and one viola player. All but one had also mastered a second instrument – something common among trained musicians.
Both groups took the test in a quiet room and sat with one index finger on a computer mouse and the other on a vibro-tactile device – a small box that vibrated intermittently. They were told to click on the mouse when they heard a sound from the speakers in front of them (audio stimulation) and also on the box when that vibrated (tactile stimulation.) The participants also wore earplugs to hide any buzzing or audio clues when the box vibrated. For the sake of completeness, when both sound and vibration occurred, it was called audio-tactile stimulation. Altogether, the stimuli were applied 180 times.
The musicians had significantly faster reaction times for all three sensory stimulations, something that should come as no surprise. When the study was published in the journal Brain and Cognition, author Simon Landry claimed the findings suggest that long-term musical training keeps people alert. Any musician could have told him that.
We could add playing chess, learning a foreign language or studying history to an almost limitless list of possible healthy activities that stimulate the brain. Chess would be useful in that it requires a certain amount of planning ahead and out of the box thinking. Speaking a second language means the brain gets used to being able to eliminate distractions – the first language is a distraction for example – and other studies have shown bilingualism can delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Studying history helps develop a linear sense and that can help train the retain memories.
For elderly people in particular, learning to play an instrument could improve alertness and reaction times. Not necessarily to professional concert soloist standard of course, but to a level where they can enjoy music making with others, something that would bring additional benefits such as social interaction and broadened interests, after all, music is the food of life.
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