In commenting last week on From an Old Woman To Her Son, Cowtown Pattie of Texas Trifles expressed her fear of losing her mental capacities as she gets older. She is not alone. In a recent survey about attitudes toward aging conducted by HSBC, 65 percent of Americans said they are afraid of losing their memory as they age.
The most frightening form of memory or mental capacity loss is dementia of which Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common. There is no known way to prevent AD, but it might be some comfort to know that out of a total 50-plus population, in 2000, of 297 million, it is estimated that about 4.5 million Americans are victims – about
.015 1.5 percent.
More benign memory loss – forgetting names, words, where we left the keys, etc. – is commonly believed to be an unavoidable affliction of old age. According to the latest research, this is a myth:
“Between the ages of 30 and 90, the brain loses about 10 percent of its volume. Forgetfulness isn't an automatic result, however. Scientists have recently found that loss of brain cells due to aging isn't as steep as once thought. In fact, they now believe memory problems aren't a natural part of growing older. Studies have shown that people with bad memories as older adults probably had the same deficiency when they were younger. But later in life, we may attribute it to aging.”
- - Psychology Today, July/August 2003
Memory research is not an exact science nor are there yet definitive answers, but progress is being made in our understanding. Some studies indicate that we don’t forget so much as it takes longer to learn new information as we get older.
“Memory studies have shown that about a third of healthy older people have difficulty with declarative memory [facts, people, places and things], yet a substantial number of 80-year-olds perform as well as people in their 30s on difficult memory tests. More good news: once something is learned, it is retained equally well by all age groups even it takes a bit longer for the older people to learn it.”
- - Staying Sharp, 2004 [pdf]
[This ten-page research publication, from the AARP Foundation, is packed with information about age and memory including reminder lists of strategies for maintaining our cognitive abilities and characteristics common to people who do.]
No one can predict the future, but living in fear of the unknown can be its own debilitating affliction. One way to defeat it is to bring it out into the open and face it head on. Ram Dass has an interesting exercise on this subject:
“…identify the thing that frightens you and come as close to it as you can before you freak out. For example, if you are haunted by the fear of going blind, allow this thought and attendant images and feelings – the helplessness, the reliance on others, the darkness in your visual field – to arise without resistance.
“Watch how the fear manifests in your body, and guard against the desire to pull back. If this fear becomes too overwhelming to you, take a mental step back – our intention is not to create more drama, but to teach ourselves to hang out with our own fears or bogeymen, rather than to feed them by ignoring them.
“As we become more aware of the degree to which our fears are mind-states, rather than realities, we take our power back.”
- - Still Here, Ram Dass
I’m not saying it’s easy to do this; it takes courage to shine a light on our deepest fears and confronting them as directly as Ram Dass advises doesn’t happen in one sitting. But the release from our fear and a less burdened life are the rewards for the effort.