Senior moments – time for a rethink?

Mary Evans Young
I resist using the term ‘senior moment’ because I think it buys into a lazy stereotype about older people ‘losing their marbles’ and the research I’ve done confirms I’m right.

Most people, regardless of age, would like to remember more, but it’s a myth that our brains deteriorate irreversibly with age.

It was once believed that the brain developed in the first few years of life and became fixed, and that it gradually deteriorated from quite a young age and we inevitably became ‘senile’.

In normal ageing our brains lose tissue mass, and myelin, which is the insulation around the neurons (brain cells), but not neurons in any significant number. We now know the brain is malleable and compensates by increased activity in other areas of the brain.

A lot of perceived forgetting is the result of lapses in attention, that are more likely to occur when we’re doing things on ‘autopilot’ and later can’t recall whether we’ve done it or not.

Most of us are already using strategies, to manage this. Concerns when we get to bed, for example, that we have forgotten to lock the back door, are overcome by getting into a fixed, end-of-day routine – e.g. lock the back door, turn off the power to the tv, straighten the cushions, turn off the lights.

It is true that rote learning and repeated rehearsal aids memory but all the evidence suggests, and this is the case whatever our age, that thinking more about the meaning of what we are learning leads to better recall.

The production of new neurons, is not achieved by doing only crosswords and puzzles (though, if they give pleasure they are worth doing), because, if we just continue to do the things we have already mastered we become only users of our brains.

The key is brain improvement. That is, learning new things that are challenging, ‘make us really think’, are interesting, and involve us in completely new physical or mental activities. What this does is develop and grow new neurons and neural pathways. This will preserve our skills, senses and memory, because if we don’t, we will lose it.

Mary Evans Young, co-author of “Ageing with Attitude – A guide for baby boomers not ready to hang up their boots”