Why Forgetting Happens and What You Can Do About It

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Have you ever arrived in a room and wondered why you went there?

If you are over 50 you probably use one or more of these questions regularly:

  • Where did I put my phone/glasses/handbag/drill/chainsaw…?
  • What’s that person’s name – I know, I know them…?
  • Why did I come into this room?
  • Did I lock the car/house door?

This is age related forgetting. We tend to take it for granted assuming it is a natural consequence of getting older…but is it? 

I am right into the whole area of age-related decline at the moment and whether we can influence, delay or even prevent biological decline as we age. This article is about the most obvious symptom we experience but accept as we age. We even make jokes about it… So here is what I will cover…

  • What is ‘normal’ in an ageing brain?
  • Why does forgetting happen?
  • What can we do to improve ?
  • What are some short term coping strategies?
  • How do we know it isn’t dementia?  

Normal age related decline
 Is it normal to experience mental decline as we age? Yes! Can we do anything about it? Yes! The problem is that most of us accept that our mental capacity will go downhill. It is true that if we do nothing, these symptoms will start to surface around age 50-60:

  • Slower mental processing speed
  • Difficulty doing more than one thing at a time
  • Forgetting what you were talking about before an interruption
  • Losing or misplacing items around the home
  • Struggling to remember the names of people and everyday things 

On the positive side, we maintain the ability to make sense of information and relate it to a depth experience. Developing wisdom in old age is all about having the mental agility and strength to connect and integrate all of the experiences of a lifetime. Some develop wisdom, others don’t! 

Why does forgetting happen?
As we age, there are structural and functional changes in the brain. For instance, there is a tiny part of the brain stem called the locus coeruleus which controls focus particularly during times of stress and anxiety. When this deteriorates, we become less able to focus and more easily distracted, especially when we are under pressure. In young people, stress improves focus but when we get older, it works against us.

Many of us stop creating new brain cells because years of poor sleep have taken their toll. Others stop producing new connections between brain cells because they have fewer and fewer new experiences: Without novelty and challenge, our brains settle into a declining state. Having an ‘easy’ retirement can mean slipping into set patterns and these can create what we call ‘hardening of the categories’ – we become unable to change our minds easily:   We become less able to focus We are more easily distractedStress and anxiety make focus more difficultImprinting new memories becomes harder when there is weaker information input due to the above.Failing sight and hearing makes focus even harder.Recall (remembering) is harder when there is a weak or confused memory trace in the first place.Recall is also prevented by poor sleep – memories are consolidated and connected in deep sleep.Many drugs have side effects that confuse us or damage memory. As we age, drugs become ‘normal’.  
What can we do to improve our ageing brain?
  Some scientists now believe that structural and functional decline can be slowed and compensated for in a number of ways. Normal age-related decline in our brain can be countered by using techniques including those to strengthen existing wiring and create new wiring between brain cells. Growing new neurons is an added bonus although may not be necessary…our ability to remember is not related to the number of brain cells we have! 
  Practice builds resilience. We can do this by strengthening focus, limiting distractions and creating new brain connections. We can also do the things that will prevent or delay the chemical and structural changes that will start as we age beyond our 40’s. What are these things?   

Strengthen focus and avoid distractions. The brain must register a strong experience to form a memory trace that can be stored and recalled. Regularly practice things that will strengthen focus and cut distractions. This includes meditation or mindfulness exercises. If you want more fun and self-competition with measurable progress – there are specific online brain games that develop focus. I use Lumosity which has a free version. Games that improve processing speed can also help with focus. In the meantime, avoid situations that require you to do more than one thing at a time – put full focus on the task at hand.  
Fix the memory long term and integrate it with existing information. The only way to do this is through sleep. The brain fixes and integrates memories during deep sleep. Without enough sleep, concentration is also difficult and focus almost impossible. Years ago, I was shocked to realise that the symptoms of chronic poor sleep are almost indistinguishable from those of dementia! I can’t stress how important it is to get the right amount of the right quality of sleep.   
Find multiple points of information for recall. For instance, if you want to remember a person’s name…concentrate using as many senses as you can – what do they look, sound and smell like. Also ask about different aspects of them as possible…where they live, who else they know, what their name reminds you of….  
Check your basic mental health. Depression, anxiety and stress can all destabilise your ability to focus and remember. Emotional control is central to mental strength. If you suspect you are off balance, use techniques to relax and recover. If this lasts for more than a month, get help from a professional.  
Eat good food. Many foods and drinks either sharpen your mind or damage it. Check previous newsletter about what these are. It’s confusing because alcohol is always damaging – but in moderation can be a net benefit. Coffee is a great mind boost and good for us – but in moderation and at the right time of day. Sugar is always bad and it is best to get sweet satisfaction from the natural sugars in fruit and veg. The one aspect of eating that most specialists agree on is that fasting – even for 12-16 hours – will protect you against ageing.  
Exercise. Also proven to improve mood, sharpen your mind and generally reverse the ravages of time. Being in nature is a big bonus…it calms the mind and has a variety of good effects on the brain. So, walk in the park …often.  
Check your medications The trouble with getting older is that we live in a culture where taking medications has become normal for the over 50’s. All medications have side effects. When they are combined, they may form different effects. Many are responsible for confusion, inability to concentrate and even depression. Ask your doctor if you think you could be having a problem – there are often alternative medications that would suit you better. Always ask.

Some of the actions above take time to take effect. What can we do to minimise the impact of forgetfulness in the meantime?

  • Use notes and a calendar as a reminder. Handwriting is known to be more effective for recall than using a device but either can help.
  • Use standard places to keep items that you need to have regular access to – your keys, mobile phone, medications. 
  • Retrace your steps back to the object. Where did you last remember using it/having it? If it was in a particular room – walk there and by the time you get to it, you will have probably remembered!
  • If you live with another person – check each other. For instance, whether or not you have switched off the hob, or that you have put your keys in the right place.
  • When meeting a person for the first time and you want to remember their name…say their name at least three times during the conversation. Other things that will help – ask them questions…the more different things you know about them, the more you are likely to remember them! Finally, think of something ridiculous, funny or familiar about their name. The brain remembers absurdity more easily! All of this will force you to fully focus on them and their name. If all else fails, write it down when you can…
  • Practice doing only one thing at a time – and only think about one thing as well!
  • If you can’t find a word, move on and don’t worry about it – that will make it harder to remember! Change tack and you will probably remember quite quickly. Another approach is to talk around the subject until you find the word you have forgotten…e.g. ‘that bush with the big blue flowers, the one your mother used to have, the one we used to associate with old ladies but is now fashionable – oh yes – a Hydrangea!’

How do we know it isn’t dementia?
 Dementia is a syndrome in which there is deterioration in memory, thinking, behaviour and the ability to perform everyday activities. Although dementia mainly affects older people, it is not a normal part of ageing. In fact, according to the World Health Organisation, only about 6- 8% of people over 60 have dementia – so more than 90% of us won’t develop that ‘age related’ condition. However, most of us worry that forgetting a name or an appointment might be more serious than normal ageing. There are some signs of the early stages of dementia that are different from forgetting and lack of focus:

  • Getting lost in a place that you know well
  • Inappropriate placing – e.g. putting your keys in the fridge (not just losing them)
  • Confusing time – inability to know whether an event happened yesterday or 40 years earlier.
  • Telling the same story or asking the same question over and over again during the same conversation.

My Conclusion

Age related forgetting is normal and doesn’t necessarily mean you have, or are developing, dementia.  However, without maintenance and ‘tuning’ our brain will continue to deteriorate from our 40s. There are a number of things we can do to preserve our functional brains as we age and if we do those things, we should be able to develop something that is unavailable to us when we are young – wisdom.

Links to relevant articles

How Ageing Affects Focus – Harvard Medical Review

Why People Become More Prone to Distraction with Age – Science Daily

12 Tips to Improve Your Concentration – Healthline

Memory and Ageing – Age Concern

Study with 330 Centenarians Finds That Cognitive Decline is Not Inevitable – Sharpbrains

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