People Over 40: Learning And Memory

Study Tip #14

What Changes When As You Get Older?
As people move into their 40's and 50's, many, but not all, of them notice memory problems. They may find it harder to learn new things and may forget where they put things: glasses, keys and purses. Since many people have now heard about Alzheimer's Disease, they wonder if these common symptoms mean they are going to get it. (No, most of us won't.)

People vary in their memory ability. Some in their 70's and 80's seem to learn and remember things as well as younger people, while others may begin to have problems in their 40's. As the psychologists say, over 50% of people over 50 eventually suffer from "age-associated memory impairment." Fortunately, there are many things you can do to improve your memory.

Some Kinds of Memory that Age Affects

1. People cannot recall new information as well as they get older. They are more likely to forget people's names, new words, technical vocabulary, phone numbers, abbreviations, acronyms, and formulas. Such items just don't stick in memory well. Nevertheless, even as people age, they can comfortably and quickly learn meaningful information that builds on their current base of knowledge.

2. People find it gets harder to recall the names of familiar people and places. Similarly, recalling a seldom-used word can stump older people. As people age, they get more mental blocks and substitute roundabout ways to say what they want.

3. People find it gets harder to recall personal events that have happened in the recent or middle past. For example, when writing a letter, it may get harder to remember what you did. Yet memory for certain childhood events may stay strong.

4. As people get older, it takes more time to learn new and difficult things. They need to take longer to learn new knowledge or to practice a new mental skill and get it learned up to an acceptable standard. The person over 40 can get there but needs extra time.

5. People can have more difficulty doing two tasks at once. As people get older, they go slower and make more mistakes when their attention is divided. Or in order to do one task well, they have to sacrifice their speed and accuracy on the other. And the harder the two mental tasks are, the more difficult it becomes to do two at once. School provides a good example: Listening to a teacher's lecture involves three tasks: (1) Listening for understanding, (2) creating a mental summary of it and (3) writing it down as class notes. That means the 20 year-olds may take better notes.
If a people work in a white-collar job that requires learning new information and remembering many facts and names, they may suffer more from the ordinary lessening of memory than do people in a simpler setting.

Some Kinds of Memory that Stay the Same as People Get Older

1. Older people can and do learn new things constantly, even totally new things, even hard facts, vocabulary, names and mental skills. In fact, if an older person takes the 20 or 30 percent extra time required and learns something to the same standard a younger person does, the older person will retain the ability at the same level.

2. Short-term memory stays about the same. For example, older people can hear a phone number and retain it long enough to dial it, and they hold about the same number of new facts in their heads.

3. Well-learned information and skills usually persist. As people age, they can usually cook, read, do math, drive cars, etc. about as well as when younger. On the average, abilities persist until the 70's or 80's.

4. People's memory for the meaning of things, for how the world works, tends to persist. People don't forget what cars and grocery stores are, what the law of gravity is, or what senators are. Although they sometimes have trouble recalling a car's brand name or their supermarket's name or Sir Isaac Newton or the name of their state senator, they understand what is going on.

5. People keep their ability to recognize names and words even when they cannot recall them on demand. "Who's that guy who discovered the law of gravity?" "Newton." "Oh, yes."

6. People keep their ability to intend to do something and to do it. It is when an older person thinks too automatically of a task that forgetting occurs.

7. The average older person can do better than younger people at analyzing complex problems that lack clear right or wrong answers. They can handle ill-structured issues and can ponder them from various perspectives, using broad patterns from their memories to draw wise conclusions. They often have better judgment than younger people in ambiguous situations.

Eight Ways You Can Help Your Memory

1. Slow down your speed of reading and thinking. Spend a little extra time on each phrase as you read. Why? When you take a little extra time, it increases the mental energy your mind can use ("activation", as the psychologists say). This extra energy recalls meanings, makes associations to related things, and raises the odds you will remember what you read.
What reading speed should you change to? You can decide by noticing at what speed the meanings become clear to you. And when thinking, you can notice when ideas become sharp, crisp, precise and well-defined. Stay on a topic until that happens. Don't think quickly and jump.

2. When you learn new information, focus on what it means, on its significance. Use the wide experience that comes with maturity to add meaning to what you read and hear. Why? When we think about the meanings of new things, we create memory. And if you later forget the exact words, you can use your knowledge of the meaning to remember ideas.

3. Use memory tricks and other ways to associate new information to other ideas. Turning words into pictures has special power. The keyword method does that. See some of the other Study Tips for suggestions.

4. When possible, do just one mental task at a time while learning. When you read, pay attention. When you listen to a lecture, try to take notes on important things while the teacher says less important things. (Yes, I know it's hard!) After something distracts, return and concentrate. Try to be alone and away from competing noises, sights, feelings, and thoughts. That will build mental intensity and help memory.

5. Take notes. Write things down. Make lists. Put into notes the things you know you tend to forget. Jot down stray ideas, names, technical terms, etc. Carry a pen and notebook.

6. Live in the present and pay attention to what you are doing. Don't let your mind go idle or daydream while you do familiar things. Instead, let your attention follow what your hands and body do. For example, as you drive into a parking lot and park on a foggy morning, pay attention to the little habits of shutting off the car and you may also remember to turn off your headlights. If you do things just a touch slower than you need to, you can boost your chances of staying rooted in the present.

7. Decide to accept yourself. Accept the physiological changes that are happening to your body and your brain. Now why did I say an obvious dull thing like "accept yourself"? Because people who hate aging and fight it will spend time thinking angry or depressed thoughts. Those extra thoughts steal your precious mental time needed to notice and think and remember. Remember that doing two things at once lowers your mental efficiency. Be simply at peace. If you accept yourself you will free your brain to do what really counts: to pay attention, to think of meanings, to slow down, to use memory tricks.

8. When you try to recall a forgotten name or fact, think of other things connected with it. Don't poke in vain at that feeling of the forgotten name. Instead, focus on what else you know about it. Think about those things. For example, once I forgot author Fritz Perls' name. So I remembered his book on Gestalt Therapy. I visualized its white cover. I thought of some of his methods. But it seemed to fail. So I thought of other things... and two minutes later I had his name! Usually it works even faster.

Practice These Things One At a Time.

How are you going to remember all this? Even a 20-year-old can't. And no one learns without practicing. You probably won't get good results at self-improvement by promising yourself to remember all these suggestions and promising yourself to use them all in real life starting now. No. Instead, pick one good suggestion. Practice it at home. Then after getting familiar with it, try it in real life. It's inevitable that events will distract you and you will forget to do it. But when you remember again, just simply try again. Your step by step practice will grow a habit. Try to add another technique, and another and another.