A TGB READER STORY: Off to Buy Vitamins

THINKING OUT LOUD: Memory Lapses and Unsuccessful Aging

Three times in an hour-long conversation with a friend this morning, I had reason to say, “Never mind, I lost the thought.” In my case when that happens, the thought is gone forever.

Most TGB readers are old enough to know the problem of forgetting the name of a place, person or thing (these lapses are almost always nouns). It has an infamous twin - walking into the bedroom and forgetting why you're there.

This is an old-age phenomenon, short-term memory being too short to be useful. But Daniel J. Levitin, a 62-year-old neuroscientist says we are wrong.

”This is widely understood to be a classic problem of aging,” he wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times. “But as a neuroscientist, I know that the problem is not necessarily age-related.”

(Or maybe it is; note how he hedges his statement with “necessarily.”)

He goes on to explain that “short-term memory is easily disturbed or disrupted.”

”It depends on your actively paying attention to the items that are in the 'next thing to do' file in your mind. You do this by thinking about them, perhaps repeating them over and over again...

“But any distraction — a new thought, someone asking you a question, the telephone ringing — can disrupt short-term memory. Our ability to automatically restore the contents of the short-term memory declines slightly with every decade after 30.”

Dr. Levitin tells us that his 20-year-old students make “loads” of short-term memory mistakes.

”They walk into the wrong classroom; they show up to exams without the requisite No. 2 pencil; they forget something I just said two minutes before. These are similar to the kinds of things 70-year-olds do.”

The difference between to the two age groups, he says, is how they each describe the events:

”Twenty-year-olds don’t think, 'Oh dear, this must be early-onset Alzheimer’s.' They think, 'I’ve got a lot on my plate right now' or 'I really need to get more than four hours of sleep.'”

Cognition does slow down with age, says Dr. Levitin, but given a little more time, elders' memory works fine. As others before him have explained, part of the slowing down problem is old people have so much more information stored in their brains that it takes longer to sort through it all.

But there's good news too.

”Some aspects of memory actually get better as we age. For instance, our ability to extract patterns, regularities and to make accurate predictions improves over time because we’ve had more experience.

“(This is why computers need to be shown tens of thousands of pictures of traffic lights or cats in order to be able to recognize them). If you’re going to get an X-ray, you want a 70-year-old radiologist reading it, not a 30-year-old one.”

Dr. Levitin says elders more easily recall events from long ago because they were new when they happened and make strong impressions.

Although little of Dr. Levitin's memory discussion is new to me, I was enjoying reading his piece until I came upon the last paragraph:

”...experiencing new things is the best way to keep the mind young, pliable and growing — into our 80s, 90s and beyond.”

What a bunch of - oh, never mind. I have new experiences every day. Everyone does even if it's as simple as reading something new. That's not going to make anyone's mind young. Instead, it just reinforces the ageist belief that age is inferior to youth.

And anyway, new experiences don't help me remember why I walked into the bedroom.

The Times' article notes that Dr. Levitin's article is adapted it from his book, Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives.

I was just about to type out a snarky response to that title, but I think most TGB readers will think what I do when see that sorry phrase: please do tell us, then, what is UNsuccessful aging.


Looks like I'm feeling a bit "snarky" myself today Ronni.

Re: " please do tell us, then, what is UNsuccessful aging?" Just another four letter word....DEAD!

Forgive me, dear lady, it's cold in here and I'm out of coffee. Heavy sigh! So I  hope to laugh about it all when I can...like now.

Are you kidding me? I see it all the time. The lonely widows who never go out of the house. The bitter women who cast a pall on everything. The fat old men with diabetes. The curmudgeons who think nothing good happened after Reagan left office. Lots of examples of how not to do it. Okay, I haven't read the book. But by "experiencing new things" I'm guessing he doesn't mean watching a different TV show, or having yet another conversation about how terrible the kids are, but meeting new people, trying a different activity, learning something you don't already know, traveling to a new place, considering an uncomfortable idea, reading a challenging book.

I read the article, and I have to say, I agree with Tom. I know the term "successful aging" is fraught, but I think Tom is on the right track. If I can keep my sense of humor, my open mind, and most importantly, an occasional sense of WONDER, then I will feel successful in aging. And yes, the "new" things Dr. Levitin was talking about were more like the "firsts" of your youth. The first time you ate a strawberry, saw a dragonfly up close, kissed a boy. Perhaps it's a stretch for him to say it will keep your "mind young," but the science says you're more likely to remember a day when you experienced something brand new. I enjoyed the article and discussed it with my husband, and was distressed to read this negative take this morning.

My favorite young-person memory lapse was the time my 20-year-old nephew forgot his car in my driveway and walked home instead!

I've always been forgetting why I came into a room--that's nothing new. It's the new forgetfulness that scares me: names. A speech pathologist said that's because names are random and unassociated with anything. If you can't think of the word for, say, "sink," you can call up the words related to it: faucet, water, dishes...and the word will usually come (her advice). But if the person's name is "Ronan" ... !!!

Mary Jamison...
From what I've read over time, old-age memory lapses for words are most frequently nouns. That's usually my experience.

But anything we read about how the brain works has to be taken as provisional. Again and again when I have read about something new science has discovered, it is soon superceded or overturned. It's really hard to keep up to date with brain stuff.

Upon reading Dr. Levitin's article recently, my first thought was: This is a new version of "methinks the lady (gentleman, in this case) doth protest too much". How he hastens to find many examples of young people with memory lapses. No doubt that is meant to be reassuring for us old people. The decline of memory as we age is as much a fact of life as physical decline. It is not morbid or unrealistic to accept that, despite a few exceptions that show the opposite.

Yes! It’s very frustrating when one drops a thought. When something is important, my tool is to repeat it to myself a few times to fix it in my pea brain. Sometimes this works.
But I agree with many of your readers about positive stimulation. I’m very fortunate to have a weekly confab with a few like minded women, most, if not all of whom are brighter than I am. It’s amazingly therapeutic. We talk about current events, health (not too much), and best of all we generally manage a belly laugh about some foolishness.

I agree that it's hard to keep up with brain science revelations, but I'm also skeptical about some of their claims, especially books that include the words 'successful' and 'power' in their titles. Despite some people who may be living much longer these days, and enjoying it more, the aging process of the brain remains very similar to what it's always been. The fact that some people seem to have more money today to make old age more comfortable, feed themselves better and access better healthcare and other living options today than decades ago makes a huge difference for some. Or at least for a while.

Not only scientists, but T.H. White, in The Once and Future King, emphasize the importance of learning new things. White put these words in Merlin's mouth about the value of that: "The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting."

I'm pretty sure I've shared this here before, and others may have as well, but it struck me a bit different today as I read the words, "you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics." White may have been a prophet too.

I agree with Tom and Betsi and even most of what the author of the book said. It does take longer for seniors to find some nouns, and if we just give ourselves some patience, we can dredge it up eventually (or not!) I couldn’t think of someone’s name yesterday and I wanted to send her an email. I could picture her face, her house, but the name was a blank. I went on to do something else and then, out of the blue, I remembered her name. I felt inordinately proud of myself just for remembering a name! Much of our “not remembering” is due to inattention to the task at hand, and that is what the author of your book is saying.
I also agree that learning something new affects our brain. When he used the unfortunate phrase “keeping it young”, he was really saying keeping it flexible and able to forge new dendrites, those appendages in our brains that are designed to receive communications from other cells.
That communication pathway of dendrites and neurons are what helps us remember and well as learn new stuff. Although they operate differently in different parts of the brain, we can forge new pathways in our brains by learning anything new, or even exercising. This is the “plasticity” of our brains at work. The bad news is the latest research says we don’t form new neurons in our hippocampus, the area where we have memories, so we can learn new stuff, but we will struggle to remember it!

I think you’re being a little hard on Dr. Levitin, with whom I agree on the comment about successful aging. I know people my age (77) who have given up, who sit around doing nothing but complain, etc, and I also have plenty of friends who are active, who exercise and stretch their minds by trying new things, who are willing to consider many perspectives, and who actively care for their physical selves. The latter I describe as aging successfully. The former, unsuccessfully. It’s a choice every day and I maintain that refusing to give up is hugely impactful in the process.

My path to 'Successful Aging' is living longer than the insurance companies say I should. Also, outliving my doctors isn't bad either.

Last night, while playing mahjong with some friends, we were talking about some long ago event, and I told them I remembered exactly where I was when it happened. I do know it wasn’t a huge event like an assassination, but this morning I can’t for the life of me remember what the event was.

I read the same article and came away satisfied that yes, much of my forgetfulness is simply not having focused enough on the task. And that yes, it's not at all unusual to forget a name now and then when you're 77 years old. I didn't have any negative reaction to the article other than when I saw a plug for his book at the end. Does the Times ever publish such pieces from people who don't have books to sell?

I do have a goal of aging or living successfully. A couple of times I told gal friends my goal is to age Disgracefully, as opposed to aging Gracefully. Sort of a joke, but sort of true. Less following of rules and more laughter.

Ronni, I also get tired of hearing about successful aging. Almost all psychological problems old people have are the same ones they had when they were young. So the odds are that the bitter woman is not bitter because she is old.

I don't understand why it's not ok to be imperfect, even limited, as a human. Everything has to be a contest in this country. I was born in 1950, and in those days most grandmothers were plump, wore loose dresses, and were wonderful to sit on. Grandfathers took you to see kittens. Everyone sat on the front porch and chatted. Is successful aging playing tennis 2 hours a day and doing the NY Times crossword? Nah.

Seconding everything Mary Symmes has said. Thank you, Mary!

I actually DO think my brain works better as I learn new and difficult things. Plus my mood is improved. PLUS it makes time slow down. AND it's fun!

Oh Charlene you beat me to the answer re unsuccessful aging equals “dead” ...my husband and I are both 90 now and aging gets more difficult for us every day. But so far it beats the alternative.

Memories change. In my 20s, I could remember childhood clearly and intensely. In my 30s, less so. In my 60s, I am hardpressed to remember many childhood memories. Childhood seems so far away. I never was good at remembering names. I've gotten worse as I've gotten older. I've known specific individuals with sharp memories. I have an aunt in her 90s. She's still sharp as a tack. It's all individual. I think it's important to just stay active, mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually, however that looks for you. And, get plenty of rest.

I can do without new experiences, not helping my age at all. Especially when you are dealing with a husband and mild dementia.

UNsuccessful aging to me would be to be say, over 55, and be homeless, hungry, maybe have an addiction issue, penniless, no family that cares about you.

Gee, I wonder if Crabby Old Lady managed to get her two cents worth in today? *smile*.

I’ve not read this particular neurologist’s book but some content you describe may be helpful to those new to the topic. Qualifying his statement, or “hedging”, as you say, is important since what is known is not absolute. He would be remiss to present the information otherwise. In fact, one of the problems many writers make when trying to briefly summarize such scientific information is that they fail to convey such qualifying nuances, thus misleading readers.

We might want to consider what constitutes “new” learning. Often we’re engaged by a same activity but simply encountering different information with the overall process not necessarily new. A good example are the brain games sold that report new neuronal connections such as dendrites are formed as though this signified significant gain. The last I knew research has shown the only gain that occurs is the person may get better at that game/or exercise, but there is no transfer or carry-over to other areas such as in activities of daily living which is really what is desired. Engaging in something new, other than that game/exercise, is what causes truly meaningful brain stimulation for growth that can enhance a person’s functioning.

Mary Jamison makes an important point for memory retrieval describing just one technique of many that can be used for word, other recall. Some approaches work better than others since each of us is different in many ways. Some of those techniques work best for one kind of recall, others better for another. Key is to find out what works best for each of us in each situation.

Obviously a Speech-Language-Hearing Pathologist can provide specific assistance on an individual basis, but I’ve done just a regular internet search on the topic in the past and various links provide lists/discussions of some of those techniques. You’ll see they are basically just common sense approaches that many of us use some of in one way or another. Key for effectiveness is consistency of use after determining which one(s) work best for differing memory issues.

Loved all the comments about successful and unsuccessful aging. Some interesting ideas to consider, though I prefer to think in terms of happiness, contentedness, peace of mind rather than success.

I've been forgetting names and not knowing why I walked into a room for my entire life. I've also had the experience clearly remembering the details of a long ago event and then discovered irrefutable evidence (e.g., a photograph) that my memory was wrong. Having learned a long time ago that memory is dicey, forgetting doesn't faze me very much.

There is no question that stress, illness, and not enough energy for what I want/need to do has a negative impact on my peace of mind as well as my memory. When it gets to be too much, I need to disconnect a bit, take a rest, give up an activity, cancel a plan. It can be a difficult balance to find.

I just reread all the comments. What an interesting, and may I say, stimulating, conversation. For me, this is exactly the kind of activity that keeps me in the game, whether that game is sitting quietly, reading or playing spider solitaire, working in the studio, or being at a gathering of friends or family. Seems to me now, as others have pointed out, I just need to find what works for me and do that. Another stage on the magnificent journey living is.

Ronni - OMG, I have had both kinds of "memory lapse" you mention for decades (I am 67). Many times, I walk into a room and have forgotten why I went there -- until I go back to where I was, and something there makes me remember what I wanted to get. I do a lot of multi-tasking, always have, so tend to have many "to-dos" in my head - so very easy (and NOT a sign of aging) that I forgot it was the dog bed that I went to fetch from the bed (but instead started straightening something else up). This happens particularly when I am packing for a trip and am trying to remember everything I have to take (or put away while I am gone). I guess this started when life got particularly crazy in my 40s. The other kind of "lapse" is while speaking. I talk so fast, and my brain is multi-tasking,that it happens relatively often that I forget what the original thought was I was pursuing in conversation, because I got so distracted by a tangent that I wanted to tell the other person.

sending love to you!

I love Terra's "aging disgracefully"!

Maybe the "forgetting why I walked to the bedroom thing" is just the brain's way to force us to take a few more steps, and see a few more things along the way :)

Of course I stumbled over the cat taking those few more steps back to the bathroom trying to remember what it was I needed in the bedroom, and saw the laundry basket in the living room that needing folding along the way... all those athletics I never would have performed otherwise!

My "keeping things new" resolution this year is to go see something I haven't seen before/in a while once each month. Like most people in the DC area that have free access to world class museums, I never go there in the effort to avoid tourists. I was going to go to the Native American Museum Saturday, but now I see that the Women's March near the White House is that day and my chances of finding the 1 of 3 handicapped parking places in DC is now gone. So it's off to the Baltimore American Visionary Museum. I can't walk long enough to see much, but even just one exhibit in that place can open your mind.

I think "successful aging" is simply accepting that this is going to happen whether I like it or not, so I may as well like it and find plenty to laugh about. Unsuccessful aging is denial of what is truly happening in your own body and mind.

I LOVE this blog. My email being down for several days meant catching up to the best of my ability, with numerous unread deletions. But all TGB posts and comments had to be read. I can’t add anything to the various discussions (this one and the one about new pronouns being especially interesting) except to say that once again I marvel at the power for elucidation that comes with getting a lot of old people together to freely speak their minds. We may all have many of what is politically incorrectly called “senior moments” but it’s obvious that in comparison to the rest of the population, we truly have our shit together.

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