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What happens to your memory as you age?

Written by Diane Archer

For all of us who are aging, there are many benefits. It’s well recognized that we gain expertise and wisdom, a deeper understanding of the way things work and the world around us. You might be surprised to learn that, in addition, we usually retain our long-term memory, reports Daniel J. Levitin, a neuroscientist, in a New York Times op-ed.

It’s true that most people experience short-term memory failures. Where are my keys? Who is that person I recognize? Why did I walk into this room? What was I looking for? Levitin makes the case that these memory lapses are not necessarily a function of being older. Younger people experience them as well.

Short-term memory concerns what you are thinking about at any given time and what you intend to do in the immediate future. What will you say? Where will you go? 

Notably, for people of all ages, it is easy to lose hold of your short-term memory if you are not truly paying attention to what it is you are planning to do. You might tell yourself again and again what it is you plan to do. But, if you are disrupted by a phone ringing or a person seeking your attention, you can easily forget. That’s as true for a young person, as it is for an older person.

Think about how often your teenage kids forgot where they left their schoolbooks or your twenty-something kids misplaced their cellphones. It’s human nature to lose track of these kinds of things.

What’s different between young and older adults is that younger people don’t associate their short-term memory lapses with dementia or Alzheimer’s or growing old, as older people often do. Instead, they blame their busy lives or lack of sleep, which older people tend not to do. Another difference between young and older adults is that, as we age, it can take a little longer to grab back our thoughts and intentions and remember exactly what we had planned to say or do. Our brains don’t tend to work as quickly as they once did.

One explanation for the slowing down of people’s memories as they age is that they have more experiences stored up in their brains, more information filed away to find. They know more. So, they have to search through more to find what they know.

Another explanation is that, as you age, you store up a lot of first-time experiences, which you can recollect vividly even though they occurred decades ago. Similar experiences at later times never make the same impression as firsts, so you are not as likely to hold onto them. It’s the new and novel experiences that stick.

Memory failure for most people, even as they get older, is not “inevitable,” says Levitin. Yes, it happens to people with brain disease. But, even very old people do not appear to lose much if any memory. Their long-term memories are often completely working. Just think about all kinds of details you can recall about elementary school, family holidays, friends and firsts. 

Indeed, Levitin says, people’s memories often improve in certain ways as they get older. Older adults are often better at seeing patterns and predicting future events based on past experience.

Yes, our lives change in dramatic and less dramatic ways as we age. But, for most of us, memory is perhaps not as big of an issue as we make of it. So long as we are trying new things, exploring new places, exposing ourselves to things new and different, we are likely to make new memories that stick!

Here’s more from Just Care:

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