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Health & Wellness

The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts: Tips to combat age-related forgetfulness

Q: Why do people become more forgetful as they age?

A: It's common to have moments of forgetfulness about where we put the keys, why we walked into a room, or what an object is called. This reflects age-related changes in thinking skills. Over time we can expect a decline in all areas of brain function, with the exception of vocabulary.

Memory involves three processes: encoding, recording and retrieval. The brain receives and encodes (takes in) new information; the brain then records (stores) the information; finally, the brain retrieves information when you need it.

Many brain regions are involved in this process. For example, the cerebral cortex -- the large outer layer of the brain -- acquires new information as input from our senses. The amygdala tags information as being worthy of storage. Nearby, the hippocampus stores memories. And the frontal lobes help us consciously retrieve information.

Many people notice a difference in memory starting in their 50s. That's when age-related chemical and structural changes can begin in brain regions involved with memory processing, such as the hippocampus or the frontal lobes. These changes may slow processing speed, making it hard to recall familiar names or words.

Other factors may be at play as well. Working memory -- a mental scratch pad that allows us to use important information throughout the day -- is susceptible to depression, anxiety and stress. And a lack of sleep can affect the brain's retention and use of information.

Here are some tips to make the most of the way your memory works now.

-- Repeat what you hear out loud, such as someone's name, an address or a new idea. Repetition increases the likelihood you'll record the information and be able to retrieve it later. With each repetition, your brain has another opportunity to encode the information, so the connections between brain cells are reinforced.

-- Make notes to remind you of people you need to call, errands to run, and appointments to make/keep. We are much better at recognition than recall. With recognition, such as reading a list, you have additional hooks or hints that help you find the information you're looking for.

-- Divide information into chunks. It's easier to store little bits through working memory. For example, if you're trying to memorize a speech, focus on getting only one sentence or idea down at a time, not the whole speech in one take.

(Howard LeWine, M.D., is an internist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)

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