Memory loss is not an automatic side effect of aging

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No one, regardless of age, is immune to random bouts of memory loss. While misplaced car keys or forgetting items on your grocery list are nothing to get worked up over, many men and women over 50 do start to worry about memory lapses, especially when they start to occur with more frequency than they might have just a few years ago. But while memory loss might be quickly associated with aging, increased forgetfulness is not an inevitable side effect of getting older, a fact that those at or approaching retirement age should find comforting.

When considering the relationship between memory and aging, it’s important that men and women recognize the distinction between memory lapses and dementia, as the two are not one and the same. As a person ages, his or her hippocampus, the region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of memories, often deteriorates. This can affect how long it takes to learn and recall information. But just because this process is slower does not mean it’s a warning sign of dementia, which is the loss of certain mental functions, including memory. Though taking longer to recall information can be frustrating, many people still retain their ability to recall information. In addition, while dementia brought on by conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease is untreatable, there are things men and women can do to strengthen their memories and reduce their momentary lapses in memory.

• Start playing games. Games that test the mind have long been believed to benefit the brain, though some remain skeptical about the true impact of brain games. However, a University of Iowa study funded by the National Institute on Aging found that brain games may in fact pay numerous and long-term dividends. In the study, 681 healthy volunteers over the age of 40 were divided into four groups. One group played computerized crossword puzzles, and three other groups played a brain training video game from Posit Science designed specifically to enhance the speed and accuracy of visual processing. The volunteers showed less decline in visual processing as well as in other tests that measured concentration, memory and the ability to shift quickly between tasks, and the benefits from the training games lasted as long as seven years after training. Brain games are now more accessible than ever before, as players can access such games on their smartphones, tablets, ereaders, and computers. And in addition to being effective, the games also provide entertainment value.

• Alter your routine. Many working professionals recognize that each day tends to have its mundane moments. The brain can grow accustomed to these moments, which tend to be a routine part of the day. But altering your daily routine can jar the brain awake, forcing it to focus during those times that had become mundane but now present new challenges. Something as simple as alternating driving routes to work from day to day or preparing some new, yet healthy, breakfast each morning can help the brain stay alert and sharp.

• Become a social butterfly. Maintaining a social life as you age is a great way to keep in touch with friends and family. But there’s another reason to continue to be socially engaged. A 2008 study spearheaded by the clinical trials administrative director at Southern California Kaiser Permanente Medical Group and published in the American Journal of Public Health found that older women who maintained large social networks were 26 percent less likely to develop dementia than women with smaller social networks. In addition, those who had daily contact with friends and family cut their risk of dementia by nearly half. The study also noted that regular social interaction can delay or possibly even prevent cognitive impairment.

• Continue your career. While the idea of retiring poolside and watching the world go by might seem nice, such a scenario is not necessarily good for your brain. Numerous studies have shown the benefits that staying engaged in professional activities can have on brain health. The brain does not thrive if it’s sitting on the sideline. Staying active in your career will continue to provide the challenges your brain needs to stay sharp and avoid memory loss and struggles with concentration. Men and women who want to leave office life behind can branch out on their own and work as consultants or put their years of experience to use by teaching at a nearby university or secondary school. But heading off for the hammock once you have hung up your briefcase can prove troublesome for your brain.

— Metro Creative

Staying socially active after 50 can benefit the brain and even reduce a person’s risk of dementia.

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