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Not Just Forgetting
The Effects of Aging on Memory

Most of us report concerns about our memory at some point. Just like the rest of our bodies, our brains change as we get older. In the same way it is not as easy to perform some physical activities as we age, it is not as easy for our brain to perform some tasks. The good news is that not everyone experiences these changes, and just as exercise can help delay the effects of aging on our bodies, we can engage in certain exercises to improve our memory.

Why do some people experience memory problems with age?

The specific areas of our brain used to perform some tasks can become less efficient as we age. Consequently, our cognitive processes can slow down and become less effective. This loss of effectiveness can interfere with both the process of storing an event or fact to memory (encoding) and the process of recalling the information later as a memory (retrieval).

When we learn or experience something, our brain encodes it so that we can retrieve the information for later use. Aging brains tend to have difficulty attending to information during encoding. Consequently we have more difficulty recalling this information because parts of it were never actually stored in our memory. Retrieval processes also can result in memory errors. For example, imagine trying to remember what the interior of a particular restaurant looks like. When we try to retrieve information from our memory we have to be selective in our search. That is, we must inhibit or ignore the memories we have of the interiors of every other restaurant we have ever dined at during our lifetimes as to not confuse them with the memory we are trying to recollect. Our ability to ignore this distracting information can decline as we age, thereby making the inhibition of non-relevant information even more difficult.

Why do other people experience fewer memory problems with age?

An important point but frequently overlooked point is that age tends to affect some types of memory more than others. For example, the ability to remember specific details about daily events tends to be reduced in aging, but memories for more long-lasting and cherished events are often well preserved. Moreover, wisdom and factual knowledge about the world usually continues to increase with age. These differences may have to do with the types of memories themselves, or with the way that different people rehearse different types of information.

Ways to improve your memory

Despite the fallibility of our memory, our brains are resilient and readily prepared to process information. There are many ways to train your brain to both encode and retrieve with greater success:

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