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Basic Facts About Aging, Memory, and Cognition There is little doubt that mental abilities change with age. As anyone in their 50s or 60s can attest, as we get older we think and act more slowly and become more forgetful. But aging also confers many advantages and benefits, not the least of which is an increase in experience, perspective, and wisdom. Moreover, there is abundant evident that the ability to learn and remember new skills can be maintained well into a person's 70s, 80s, and beyond.

The purpose of this fact sheet is to describe what we know about age-related cognitive decline, and provide some general tips for how to maintain cognitive abilities throughout the lifespan.

Age-related declines in memory, attention and other cognitive functions are well documented and constitute one of the greatest threats to a person's ability to live independently.

Cognitive declines usually begin in a person's early 30s and are primarily observed in four areas:

(1) Attention or the ability to concentrate on one thing despite other things going on around you. Thus, as we get older we become more distractible.

(2) Working-memory or the ability to hold information in mind for a brief period of time to perform some task (such as following driving instructions or figuring out how much to tip). Thus, as we get older we're more easily confused as information is not always available when we need it.

(3) Long-term memory, especially recollective memory for details such as names, locations, and who told us something. Thus, as we get older we become more forgetful.

(4) Information-processing speed or how quickly we perceive, think, and act. Thus, as we get older our thoughts and actions get slower.

Some researchers view the above problems as symptoms of a more general age-related decline in cognitive control, the ability to flexibly implement one's goals in the face of distraction.

There are three important qualifications to the claim that memory declines with age.

First, not all forms of memory decline. Little or no decline is observed for habitual or automatic forms of memory such as the ability to tie your shoes, drive your car, or play a musical instrument. And some forms of memory, such as your language skills (vocabulary) and knowledge about the world (wisdom), show continuous increases over most of the lifespan.

Second, healthy aging does not involve a dramatic loss of memory; rather, memory declines gradually, often so slowly that you are unaware the change is happening.

Third, many of the cognitive impairments observed in the lab are often not observed in the everyday lives of older adults. That is, many older adults appear to function fine in the real-world despite showing deficits on laboratory tasks. [One reason for this is that much of our behavior is supported by well-structured environments (such as an organized kitchen or familiar grocery store) and well-worn habits (such as using an appointment book or parking our car in the same location). Such supports allow us to perform tasks automatically and thus do not tax the more effortful cognitive-control processes that are declining with age.]

The above claims are supported by extensive research showing changes in those regions of the brain known to underlie cognitive control including the medial-temporal lobe (especially the hippocampus) and the pre-frontal cortex. Changes in the brain's neurochemistry also occur.

Factors Affecting Memory

Memory is affected by numerous things including how alert you are when information is presented, how relevant or interesting the information is to you, whether the information is novel or is related to things you already know, how organized or detailed the information is, and the physical and mental context in which information is learned and later remembered.

Memory and other mental abilities are also very sensitive to your physical state. For example, lack of sleep will undermine your memory, as will factors like fatigue, anxiety, and stress. Illness can also adversely affect your memory and attention, from relatively minor illnesses such as colds, the flu, and infections, to more major illness such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, liver and kidney problems, hypertension, and arteriosclerosis.

How to Maintain a Heathy Brain and a Fit Mind

There are a number of things you can do to keep your brain healthy and your memory operating at its best.

First, Eat a Well-Balanced Diet. Food provides the energy and nutrition not only for your body but for your brain as well. They say you are what you eat and they're right. But this goes for your brain and mind as well as for your stomach and thighs. Poor nutrition makes it difficult for the brain to operate properly, to pay attention when necessary, and to store and retrieve information. Good nutrition provides your brain with the necessary building blocks to function at its peak.

Second, Stay Physically Fit. We don't believe that people should 'rest' when they get older. On the contrary, you should exercise as much as possible. Physical activity keeps the brain healthy by supplying it with oxygen, glucose, and nutrients. And there is emerging evidence that aerobic exercise alone, even just brisk walking, can help your brain grow new blood vessels, new dendrites, and even new neurons. Living a sedentary life will hasten your mental decline and, eventually, your physical decline as well. Living a physically active life will enhance your body and mind, thereby allowing you to live life to the fullest.

Third, Use Your Brain! Exercise your mental abilities as much as possible. This is especially true for the cognitive-control processes mentioned above, the processes that are called upon when we must solve a new problem or learn new information. So learn new things, try new activities, gain new experiences, and stay socially active. Above all, challenge yourself. If you've been solving cross-word puzzles for years, try Sudoku. Instead of watching TV, play video games. If you're a pro at Bridge, try Hearts. Learn a new hobby or, better yet, a new language. And don't look at retirement as a time to rest but rather as an opportunity to get out of old habits in order to discover new possibilities.

Think of it as a pyramid with three layers. The bottom, most important layer is nutrition. The second, middle layer is physical exercise. The third, top layer is mental activity. The top of the pyramid is the most grand but it cannot exist without the layers beneath it.

And the above is more than just an inspirational analogy because all three factors--diet, exercise, and mental stimulation--have been shown to increase cognitive performance in older adults and decrease their risk of dementia.

How to Improve Your Ability to Remember Things

The key is attention. Attention is the gateway to memory. Memory is not automatic; if it were, our heads would be filled with all kinds of useless information. Rather, good memory takes effort and that effort is best applied by paying attention to what you want to remember.

Paying attention is difficult in noisy, distracting environments and so, if these give you trouble, stay out of them. But you should strive to be able to focus on your goals (like remembering someone's name or what task you are trying to accomplish) even under conditions of distraction. Indeed, this is probably one of the easiest ways to exercise your attention and memory skills because there is certainly no lack of noisy environments in our modern world.

To view a related fact sheet on Alzheimer's Disease, click here.

To view a related fact sheet on Brain Fitness & Cognitive Training, click here.
At a Glance...
Age-related cognitive declines are well documented and constitute one of the greatest threats to independent living.

Cognitive declines are primarily observed in attention, working memory, long-term memory, and the speed of information processing.

Changes in brain structure and function also occur with age, primarily in the medial-temporal lobes (associated with memory) and prefrontal cortex (associated with attention and judgment).

Memory is affected by numerous factors including fatigue, stress, illness, and medication.

Education, exercise, a healthy diet, and a cognitively-challenging lifestyle are all associated with increased cognitive performance in older adults.

The most important factor in remembering something is paying attention to it in the first place.