Aging Matters: Memory myths and realities

Do we have to resign ourselves to a poor memory as we get older? The reading I’ve done says no, emphatically. If true, that’s good news. To beat the demographic drum again, the U.S. population is aging – 78 million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are turning 60 at the rate of about 8,000 per day. In general, we don’t want to quit working, whether for pay or as volunteers. Our goals will be elusive if memory loss is inevitable. At the Franklin Institute Resources for Science Learning Web site (, it states, “Severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental exercise and stimulation.” In this column I hope to dispel a few myths about aging and memory loss.

Myth: Cognitive decline is a normal byproduct of aging.

Reality: A recent Wall Street Journal article (Dec. 2, 2008) reports our brains normally shrink as we age, and the neural connections central to learning and memory are more easily interrupted. These facts suggest we handle distractions less well when trying to use our brains, which can interfere with memorization and recall tasks, but they don’t have to mean we experience cognitive decline. So just because you can’t find your keys doesn’t mean your brain is not functioning. Read on for how to keep your brain nimble.

Myth: Brain cells are permanently lost as we age.

Reality: Neurons can be regenerated, at any age. Some research claims that the network of “dendritic” branches connecting brain cells ordinarily continues growing, and that older brains may even have an edge over younger ones in responsiveness to enrichment. It’s apparently particularly useful to learn something new. Yoga, chess, crosswords, tai chi, a new language, a musical instrument, and sculpture are examples cited in news about regenerating neurons and developing the brain. Mind-stretching puzzles are also commonly recommended. Some readily accomplished mind-stretchers include using your non-dominant hand to operate a computer mouse, eating with the opposite hand, and taking a new route to a familiar destination.

Myth: Mental exercise is more important than physical exercise in maintaining brain health.

Reality: Studies are endlessly cited to show that in elderly people, walking improves memory, including advanced cognitive functions like organization and planning, and may even help to stave off the onset of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other dementia. At the Franklin Institute site I read, “A healthy human being is a human doing,” and mobility originally evolved as a way to keep an organism fed without having to wait for food to come by. In other words, maybe you weren’t expecting to read yet another harangue about getting off the couch and being active, but the bottom line is that your brain’s health could be at stake. Look at it this way: Now you have another excuse to go for a walk.