What You Can do to Improve Memory (and Why It Deteriorates in Old Age)

After about age 50, most peo­ple begin to expe­ri­ence a decline in mem­o­ry capa­bil­i­ty. Why is that? One obvi­ous answer is that the small arter­ies of the brain begin to clog up, often as a result of a life­time of eat­ing the wrong things and a lack of exer­cise. If that life­time has been stress­ful, many neu­rons may have been killed by stress hor­mones. Giv­en theImprove Memory Bill Klemm most recent sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture, reviewed in my book Thank You, Brain, For All You Remem­ber. What You For­got Was My Fault, dead neu­rons can’t be replaced, except in the hip­pocam­pus, which is for­tu­nate for mem­o­ry because the hip­pocam­pus is essen­tial for mak­ing cer­tain kinds of mem­o­ries per­ma­nent. Anoth­er cause is incip­i­ent Alzheimer’s dis­ease; autop­sies show that many peo­ple have the lesions of the dis­ease but have nev­er shown symp­toms, pre­sum­ably because a life­time of excep­tion­al men­tal activ­i­ty has built up a “cog­ni­tive reserve.

So is there any­thing you can do about it besides exer­cise like crazy, eat healthy foods that you don’t like all that much, pop your statin pills, and take up yoga?

Yes. In short: focus, focus, focus.

Chang­ing think­ing styles can help. Research shows that old­er peo­ple tend to have lost some of their abil­i­ty to pay atten­tion, which for­tu­nate­ly can be improved if they work at it. More specif­i­cal­ly, old­er peo­ple tend to have dif­fi­cul­ty in ignor­ing dis­trac­tions and irrel­e­vant stim­uli. Dis­trac­tions and a reduced abil­i­ty to focus dis­rupt the con­sol­i­da­tion process that con­verts work­ing mem­o­ry into long-last­ing form.

In one study of this aging prob­lem, a typ­i­cal group of tri­als involved pre­sent­ing a pic­ture of a face for about a sec­ond, a pic­ture of a scene for about a sec­ond, then a pic­ture of anoth­er face for about a sec­ond, and then anoth­er pic­ture of a dif­fer­ent scene for about a sec­ond.  Then after a nine-sec­ond delay a pic­ture was pre­sent­ed and the sub­ject was instruct­ed to press a but­ton to indi­cate whether the stim­u­lus matched one of the pre­vi­ous­ly pre­sent­ed stim­uli. In oth­er words, the sub­ject had to sup­press the mem­o­ry of irrel­e­vant stim­uli. In this study (Gaz­za­ley,  et al.  2005) the inves­ti­ga­tors went beyond behav­ioral assess­ment of the respons­es, because that kind of thing had been done before.  What they want­ed to know was what was hap­pen­ing in the brain dur­ing this sup­pres­sion of irrel­e­vant task. They used func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance (fMRI) imag­ing fMRI scan neuroimagingover a region of brain that was respon­sive to the visu­al images.  What was being mea­sured was the amount of brain activ­i­ty under con­di­tions when the instruc­tions were to remem­ber a type of image or ignore it.  What they found was that brain activ­i­ty in all of the young sub­jects increased when they were view­ing scenes they were asked to remem­ber and decreased when pre­sent­ed with an image that they were sup­posed to have ignored. That is, the brain sup­pressed its response to irrel­e­vant stim­uli.  Many old­er par­tic­i­pants, how­ev­er, were unable to sup­press brain activ­i­ty when pre­sent­ed with stim­uli that they had been asked to ignore.  So what these data sug­gest is that old­er indi­vid­u­als have dif­fi­cul­ty in ignor­ing irrel­e­vant or dis­tract­ing infor­ma­tion that is con­tained in work­ing mem­o­ry.  But let us not come away with the con­clu­sion that mem­o­ry deficits in the elder­ly are inevitable, when in fact in this study near­ly half of the elder­ly showed no deficit.

In a study at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois (Fabi­ani, M. et al. 2006.), researchers record­ed brain elec­tri­cal respons­es in young adults and old sub­jects (65–78) who were pas­sive­ly lis­ten­ing to bursts of sound that con­tained a base fre­quen­cy of 500 cycles per sec­ond, with super­im­posed high­er fre­quen­cies at low­er ampli­tude. Sound vol­ume was adjust­ed to the hear­ing thresh­old for each sub­ject. Sound was pre­sent­ed while sub­jects were instruct­ed to con­cen­trate on read­ing a book and to ignore the sound bursts. Four bursts were deliv­ered with vari­able silent inter­vals. The brain reg­is­tered the mem­o­ry of each burst in the size of the evoked elec­tri­cal response. The rep­e­ti­tion of sound burst was expect­ed to induce sup­pres­sion of the sound-evoked elec­tri­cal response to lat­er bursts in the train, while the silent inter­val was expect­ed to allow for recov­ery as the mem­o­ry of a pre­ced­ing burst decays. By vary­ing the inter­val, researchers could eval­u­ate the decay process.

Results revealed that the elec­tri­cal respons­es per­sist­ed longer in old­er peo­ple, but the effects of delay inter­val were the same irre­spec­tive of age. Since age did not seem to affect mem­o­ry decay, one is left to con­clude that the brains of old­er sub­jects were less able to inhib­it the sound burst dis­trac­tions. The good news for the elder­ly is that age does not make you for­get any faster. It does, appar­ent­ly, make you more distractible.

Such stud­ies should prob­a­bly also be done in chil­dren, who I would sus­pect are more like old­er peo­ple in being less able to inhib­it distractions.

A study at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to (Grady, C. L. et al. 2006.) used MRI imag­ing of peo­ple while they per­formed a vari­ety of mem­o­ry tasks, both dur­ing encod­ing and recog­ni­tion. They found an age-relat­ed increase in activ­i­ty in brain areas that nor­mal­ly decrease dur­ing task per­for­mance. This is inter­pret­ed to indi­cate that these areas nor­mal­ly do not respond dur­ing a mem­o­ry task because the brain is pay­ing atten­tion to the task and assign­ing the mem­o­ry work only to the parts of brain that need to process the mem­o­ry. How­ev­er, anoth­er inter­pre­ta­tion is that as you get old­er, your brain has to recruit more help from oth­er parts of the brain. A relat­ed find­ing of the research was an age-relat­ed decrease of activ­i­ty in brain areas that nor­mal­ly become acti­vat­ed dur­ing the mem­o­ry task. The researchers thought that this find­ing indi­cat­ed an age-relat­ed decline in abil­i­ty to dis­tin­guish task-relat­ed demands from those that were irrel­e­vant. It could also be that as you age, the cir­cuits that are nor­mal­ly need­ed to han­dle mem­o­ry are less capa­ble. How­ev­er you look at it, the find­ings doc­u­ment an age-relat­ed decline in the brain’s abil­i­ty to focus its neur­al resources on mem­o­ry tasks. What may be most trou­ble­some to con­tem­plate is that the brain activ­i­ty-pat­tern changes showed signs of decline around age 40.

So, what do we do about atten­tion deficit? One pos­si­bil­i­ty is that by keep­ing our brain work­ing hard as we age, we might reduce this ten­den­cy to lose abil­i­ty to han­dle mem­o­ry work­load. Think of it like exer­cise for the brain, which strength­ens the neur­al cir­cuits in the parts of the brain that have to dis­tin­guish irrel­e­vant from rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion in mem­o­ry tasks and those parts of the brain that have to do the mem­o­ry work. Anoth­er gen­er­al strat­e­gy is to reduce the dis­trac­tions in our life, at least dis­trac­tions that are present when we are try­ing to remem­ber some­thing. Mul­ti-task­ing is hard enough to do when you are young. That abil­i­ty prob­a­bly declines marked­ly as you get old­er. On those occa­sions when I for­get what I opened the refrig­er­a­tor door for, it is always because I let myself get dis­tract­ed between the time I decid­ed what I want­ed and the time when I opened the door. Obvi­ous­ly, old­er peo­ple (and chil­dren) need to work at pay­ing atten­tion, dis­ci­plin­ing the brain to con­cen­trate. Sec­ond, since they are so dis­tractible, infor­ma­tion should be absorbed in small­er, more man­age­able chunks. By low­er­ing the mem­o­ry demand, the brain’s lim­it­ed resources can deal with it more effectively.

Bill KlemmW. R. (Bill) Klemm, D.V.M., Ph.D. Sci­en­tist, pro­fes­sor, author, speak­er As a pro­fes­sor of Neu­ro­science at Texas A&M Uni­ver­si­ty, Bill has taught about the brain and behav­ior at all lev­els, from fresh­men, to seniors, to grad­u­ate stu­dents to post-docs. His recent books include Thank You, Brain, For All You Remem­ber. What You For­got Was My Fault and Core Ideas in Neu­ro­science.


- Fabi­ani, M. et al. 2006. Reduced sup­pres­sion or labile mem­o­ry? Mech­a­nisms of inef­fi­cient fil­ter­ing of irrel­e­vant infor­ma­tion in old­er adults. J. Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science. 18 (4): 637–650.

- Gaz­za­ley, A.  et al.  2005. Top-down sup­pres­sion deficit under­lies work­ing mem­o­ry impair­ment in nor­mal aging.  Nature Neu­ro­science. 8: 1298–1300.

- Grady, C. L. et al. 2006. Age-relat­ed changes in brain activ­i­ty across the adult lifes­pan. J. Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science. 18:227–241.


  1. Mark Waldman on August 28, 2008 at 6:05

    In a recent study com­plet­ed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, Andrew New­berg, MD, estab­lished that a 12-minute chant­i­ng med­i­ta­tion improved a range of mem­o­ry and cog­ni­tion prob­lems in cog­ni­tive­ly impaired old­er adults. None had prac­ticed med­i­ta­tion before, and the improve­ments ranged from 10–20% after 8 weeks of prac­tice. Appar­ent­ly, med­i­ta­tion “trains” the brain to be more alert, focused, and orga­nized, and most med­i­ta­tion tech­niques affect the same neur­al cir­cuit­ry which affects the parietal/precuneal area, the ante­ri­or cin­gu­late, parts of the basal gan­glia, and many areas in the frontal and pre­frontal cor­tex. The paper will be pub­lished short­ly and report­ed on in the forth­com­ing book, How God Changes Your Brain, to be released in March 2009.

    Mark Wald­man
    Asso­ciate Fellow
    Cen­ter for Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and the Mind
    Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania

  2. Lorne S. Label,MD on September 9, 2008 at 1:03

    Being a prac­tic­ing med­i­ta­tor, the results make com­plete sense. Nice study.

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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