We’ve all had those “moments.” You know the ones I mean: When you walk into a room to get something and can’t remember why you are there or when you’ve lost your car in the parking lot at the mall or you’ve forgotten your best friend’s name when you’re getting ready to introduce him at a business function.
We usually laugh off these embarrassing “senior moments,” but somewhere in the back of our brains is a nagging fear: “Am I starting to lose my mind?” we ask ourselves. “Is this the beginning of the end?”
These moments are particularly distressing if we’ve watched a parent or grandparent or other loved one slide down into the abyss of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.
I think most of us fear losing our cognitive function more than we fear death.
Memory loss, for most people, is not inevitable. Assuming you don’t have any strong genetic risks for dementia and that you use your mind and eat a healthy diet, you can keep your brain healthy and your memory intact throughout your life.
Think of octogenarians, nonagenarians and even centenarians who have continued to make a contribution to our world in their old age.
Think of George Burns, the beloved comedian and actor who re-launched his career when he was in his 90s and who continued to delight audiences, delivering his lines with impeccable timing and wit until his death at the age of 100. And remember his compatriot, the legendary Bob Hope, who also lived to be 100 and continued to entertain U.S. troops until he was nearly 90. Remember, too. the incomparable actress Katherine Hepburn who was still making movies at the age of 87, winning Oscars into her late 70s and lived to be 96. Not to speak of the beloved and witty actress Betty White, still occasionally working even at the age of 95!
Think of former president Gerald Ford, who died at the age of 93 and was actively giving policy advice well into his 90s. And then there was the curmudgeonly Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the oldest senator in history, who held on to his seat in the U.S. Senate until his death at the age of 100.
Think of Marie Rudisill, whose witty and razor-sharp comments as the “Fruitcake Lady” on the Jay Leno show tickled millions of funny bones until her death at the age of 95.
The list goes on and on: Mother Teresa, tirelessly fulfilling her mission in life until her death at 87; Nelson Mandela, the South African who ushered his country into a new era of equality, still doing likewise at the age of 89 despite the physical hardships that resulted from his long imprisonment; Max Planck, the father of quantum physics, who was still giving lectures a few months before his death at the age of 89 and George Bernard Shaw, who died after a fall from a ladder at the age of 94, was at work on another play at the time of his death.
Certainly it is obvious that that it is possible to remain mentally alert and inquisitive, to learn new things and to engage in social interactions into extreme old age.
I don’t think that it’s an easy task to hang on to all your marbles late in life.
If you think of the famous people I mentioned who maintained full, rich and cognitive lives well into their 80s and 90s and even beyond, you’ll see some common threads:
- All of them, without exception, are and were mentally active. There’s not a single couch potato in this lot! They consciously sought new ideas, new experiences and new challenges. They discussed ideas and circled them from many viewpoints. They literally exercised their brains, so their brains “stayed in shape,” and remained flexible and strong.
- Their activities involved a great deal of social interaction. Researchers tell us that a social network and the challenges of social interaction go a long way toward preserving mental function, whether it is attending a regular bridge club meeting or serving on the board of directors of your favorite charity, delivering meals on wheels or simply getting together regularly with friends and family.
- They continued to work in at least some capacity, adding to the challenges to their brains. And they loved their work!
- They moved their bodies. No, none of them were running marathons or winning body-building competitions, but they were clearly far from chair- or couch-bound. Whether it’s walking, gardening, taking care of a house, riding a bike, the effect is the same: the simple movements of day-to-day living help preserve brain function. In fact, Nelson Mandela still works out in his home gym for an hour every morning– — even at the age of 89!
How alarmed should you be when those “moments” occur?
Forgetting where you left your car keys or you’re groping for a word or missing an important appointment does not mean your memory is failing.
It happens to the best of us, at any stage of life.
These kinds of memory lapses can be caused by stress, lack of sleep or simply having too much on your plate.
It’s called “tip of the tongue phenomena.” It happens to everybody. Don’t fret about it.
I like to think of the memory like the hard drive on a computer. So, over the years, we fill our minds with information, experiences, memories, faces, numbers, all sorts of “stuff.”
There is a hierarchy of information that goes into that hard drive.
No one expects you to remember what you ate for lunch last Wednesday or what you wore to a party six months ago or your address ten years ago. They’re simply not important enough to use up the memory space. Even the more important minutiae of daily life, like the exact time of your next dentist’s appointment or your bank account number probably aren’t worth taking up “hard drive space” when you can keep you calendar and access your bank account data online.
Memories that you use on a regular basis have a chemical base. Your brain actually lays down a protein that roots those memories in your brain tissue. For example, you probably have some strong childhood recollections, perhaps of family holiday gatherings or places you visited or your mother’s face or the smell of your grandmother’s pies in the oven. Because those memories are an important part of who you are, they are chemically stored in your brain.
Your hard drive fills up with so much information as you age that it becomes harder to remember some of these little things.
That’s perfectly normal and should not be cause for worry.
It’s a different story if your neurons start misfiring and you can no longer tell a friend the details of the latest book you’re reading or you can’t recall your way home from the grocery store or you left your car keys in the freezer.
More on that in the coming weeks.