THE BLOG
03/06/2013 06:39 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

Teenage Dreams and Mid-life Memories: How Your Brain Gets Smarter With Age

When I learned, at the sage age of eight, that I'd have to wait until I was 16 to drive a car, I couldn't contain my despair. "Sixteen!" I lamented. "That's a whole 'nother lifetime!" Of course, by the time my 16th birthday actually rolled around I was looking back on my eight-year-old self with wry amusement, wondering where, exactly, the past eight years had gone -- and facing age anxiety of a new kind. "Time flies, doesn't it?" I said to my friends. "I mean, next thing we know, we're gonna be old."

This tragi-comical truism -- that kids can't wait to grow up while many adults try to grow back down -- inspires loads of profitable products: Youngsters beg for pint-sized cars and playhouses, while grown-ups enlist pharmaceuticals and home remedies to smooth skin, fight hair loss and keep muscles toned. Such a profusion of toys, techniques and treatments seems to hint that if we could all just freeze the aging process sometime in our early twenties, many of us would jump at the chance.

Though no scientist (so far) has discovered a foolproof way to prevent our bodies from aging, a growing body of research does indicate that it's possible to maintain a sharp, quick, youthful mind well into your senior years. Some centenarians chalk their mental agility up to exercise and healthy eating; others to socializing or video gaming -- but one common thread is a steady supply of interesting mental challenges.

Take, for instance, a recent study on age-related forgetfulness. As the journal Psychological Science reports, a team led by the University of Toronto's Renée Biss recruited two teams of volunteers: Young adults in the 17-to-27 age range, and older folks in the 60-to-78 range. The researchers asked both groups of volunteers to memorize a list of words and repeat them after a short delay - and then to recall the words again, 15 minutes later, on a surprise quiz.

The tricky part, though, was that during the 15-minute break, the researchers put the volunteers to work on a picture-sorting task. As the volunteers sorted photos, the researchers distracted them from their work by showing them random words from the lists they'd studied. These "distracters" didn't have much impact one way or the other on young adults' subsequent word recall; but the distractions' effect on older adults was striking: The seniors recalled their word lists 30 percent more accurately after the distraction period than before it. In other words, even "distracting" information helped boost their recall to youthful levels.

What's more, Biss and her team obtained this same 30 percent boost in three consecutive experiments with three different groups of volunteers. As Lynn Hasher, a senior scientist who worked on the study, puts it, "To eliminate age-related forgetfulness across three consecutive memory experiments ... is dramatic; and, to our knowledge, a totally unique finding."

The question of why, exactly, distraction proves so useful for older minds is one for future investigators to explore. One possibility is that -- as another recent study found - our brains perform more precisely when we practice adding and deleting information (like upcoming birthdays or items on a to-do list) from our short-term memory. It's also likely that older brains get more and more adept at sorting relevant info from the irrelevant "noise," even when we're not consciously aware we're doing so.

Even so, multitasking for its own sake doesn't seem to be too helpful -- in fact, some researchers have found that a habit for simultaneous talking, tweeting and TV-viewing actually decreases people's short-term memory capacity, as well as their attention span. So if you're aiming to keep your brain young and active, you're better off practicing focus and patience than peppering your mind with excess distractions.

The good news is, you don't need any "miracle" supplements or expensive brain-training games to keep your mind sharp. All it takes is a set of healthy habits: A natural diet that includes some antioxidants and omega-3s, a physically active lifestyle, a stimulating social life -- and, perhaps most importantly of all, a curiosity to keep investigating the world around you. The more you put your attentiveness and memory to work, the readier your brain will be to grapple with new concepts, to organize new knowledge, and even to fight off mental disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

No matter what products we buy, none of us can stay 21 forever -- but unlike our bodies, our brains often get sharper and sleeker with age. Treat yours with respect, and it'll pay you back with a lifetime of learning.

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