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Deborah Gaines


Are We Getting Dumber With Age?

Posted: 01/14/2013 8:02 am

If you're like me, you've already experienced some of the difficulties associated with aging: weird moles, sagging everything, the death of people you love. While I haven't taken any of these developments with good grace, I've been comforted by the fact that, any day now, I will wake up bathed in the gentle glow of wisdom that is supposed to be the payoff for all this crap.

Instead, I seem to be getting dumber.

Take parking. Not only have I lost the ability to parallel park -- or, as my daughter says, "Don't worry, Mom, I can walk to the curb from here" -- I also routinely forget where I've left the car. My office has a five-floor parking garage, and each morning I have to photograph the floor number so I can find my vehicle at the end of the day.

Keys are another challenge -- or rather, my absolute certainty that I have forgotten to put them in my purse. You know the scene in Titanic where water starts pouring onto the lower decks? I experience that level of anxiety every morning when it's time to leave the house. Only after I have frantically dumped the contents of my bag on the coffee table do I realize that, yes, my keys are right where I left them.

According to Eric Braverman, MD, author of Younger Brain, Sharper Mind (Rodale 2012), the difference between a resourceful mind and senility is only 100 milliseconds of brain speed. "Typically, we lose seven to 10 milliseconds -- a tenth of a second -- per decade from age 20 on, which means that aging alone causes us to lose brain cells and processing speed," Dr. Braverman informs us.

And what do we get in return? Barbara Strauch, author of The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain (Viking 2010), says older folks are "better able to make accurate judgements" because "our brains build up patterns of connections, interwoven layers of knowledge that allow us to recognize similarities of situations and see solutions."

Strauch does admit that "the average 25-year-old [brain] has a much faster processing speed and also has an easier time learning and memorizing." But, she adds, "middle-aged brains get the big picture faster."

Unfortunately, the big picture I'm getting is that my intelligence is draining out like sand through a sieve.

My father, who experienced a similar level of brain-speed loss in his 50s, started calling everything he couldn't remember "the fern." "Pick up the fern on your way to the party (or sometimes, "to the Fern's party,") he would remind us.

Sometimes we figured out what he was talking about; often we didn't. Either way, he got a big laugh out of it.

Which may be as close as any of us gets to wisdom.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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  • Your 21st Birthday

    People often tell me the day they were born to test my memory, and after telling them the day of the week, I love to turn the tables and ask them about their 21st birthday. The context of a memory helps fill in details that may, at first, be a little hazy. When you recall the day of the week an event took place, everything else starts to make more sense. Even though my mind has automatically stored that my 21st birthday was on a Friday, yours doesn't have to. Find the day of the week of your 21st birthday by Googling the date. Just knowing how long you had to wait for a weekend or how quickly you were back at school or work after your night of partying will help unlock details that you didn't remember were in there.

  • The First Time You Heard Your Favorite Song

    Music is one of the easiest ways to remember something. It can put us back in a physical or mental space faster than almost any other trigger. Furthermore, any song you can call your favorite is probably loaded with memories. Maybe your first listen jumps right into your head, but if it doesn't, find the song on YouTube and let yourself be transported back to the first time that song graced your soon-to-be in love ears (or your soon-to-be-dancing feet!)

  • A Family Wedding

    Weddings are usually memorable occasions in our lives, and they appeal to our love of linear thinking. It starts with getting ready, followed by the ceremony, the reception, and then, perhaps, the after party. I call this horizontal memory because it moves along a swath of horizontal time and sequences events in an easy-to-visualize timeline. However, we can also remember a wedding in a vertical manner, unlocking more information as we go deeper and deeper into one particular moment. The more you think about actually being there, the more information will come to you. You might also get a lot out of remembering in a mushrooming way, where the wedding opens you up to a whole sea of connected memories, including those that occurred months later and months before. Both this method and the final one, sporadic remembering (completely non-connected events that spring to mind), are more free associative than horizontal or vertical thinking, but they can be especially useful for seeing the big picture of a certain time in your life.

  • A First Date

    I know from teaching memory classes for years that everyone has a dominant sense that helps you record, retain, and retrieve memories. Which one is yours? Sight, sound, touch, taste or smell? When trying to recall a first date with someone, play to your strengths and use your dominant sense to trigger the memories of that date. (How did they look, what did they say, how did they feel, what did you eat, or how did they smell?) By activating your dominant sense, you may not only be able to bask in the glow of a long forgotten moment, you may also be able to look at it under a harsh light that will help you notice a red flag you should have seen the first time around.

  • Your Doctor's Phone Number

    One thing that amazes people, even more than my ability to recall dates and events, is how many phone numbers I hold in my mind. This is especially freaky when I haven't seen somebody for a decade or two. There are many techniques out there for remembering strings of numbers, but here's how I do it, and I think it's the most personal method out there. Each one of us automatically knows several combinations of numbers that we can relate to at a glance (a birthday, anniversary, etc). When you have a phone number to remember, break it into two-, three-, or four-digit pieces that are already significant to you, and it'll be much easier. You don't need to make up images to remember the number, because it is all coming from things you already know.

  • Your Favorite Day

    This one you obviously remember, otherwise you wouldn't think of it as your favorite day. But how well do you remember it? Really dive into the details of what made this day so special? Was it the people? Some activity you love to do? What you were wearing, reading or even eating? Whatever gets you back there most vividly is probably something I call your primary memory Track - the lens through which you can most easily access your past (e.g. travel, sports, clothing, relationships, etc.) Everyone has something they remember especially well, and knowing your Track will help take you back!

  • What You Ate For Dinner Last Sunday

    People often say to me, "No way can I remember a few years ago. I can't even remember what I ate for dinner last week!" Using the suggestions from panels 1-6, prompt your memory by applying them to last Sunday's dinner. Use the date, music, the four types of memory retrieval, your dominant sense, a significant number and your primary memory Track to get the ball rolling on what you did and, eventually, what you ate last Sunday. If you still cannot remember, try paying attention this Sunday, so that next week at this time, you will remember! Memory takes practice, and like anything else, practice makes perfect!


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