According to a Pew Research Center survey released March 22, 2016, over the past year, 74 percent of American adults participated in activities that were intended to advance their learning. But scientists are finding that, when it comes to building up memory and mental acuity, how people engage their brains may be just as critical as the time they devote to learning.
A much-discussed study reported in January 2016 in the journal Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience suggests that, to maintain the ability to absorb and remember information in older age, learners must engage in a type of knowledge acquisition called active learning, which entails a high degree of mental challenge and effort.
“Researchers are finding that engaging in learning activities that require a robust intellectual effort is a highly effective way of staying sharp,” says Janet Sherman, PhD, chief neuropsychologist and clinical director of MGH’s Psychology Assessment Center. “To maintain maximum cognitive functioning as you age, you have to stretch your boundaries—you can’t just stay within your comfort zone.”
Studies show that engaging in mentally challenging activities over a sustained period of time can help older individuals not just maintain, but actually improve their memory and brain function, Dr. Sherman says.
“The concept is a mental version of what we know to be true about physical conditioning,” she adds. “To effectively maintain and build physical strength, you have to regularly break a sweat and get your pulse rate up. In a similar way, regularly engaging in learning activities that require a sustained, strenuous mental effort can help keep your brain in top condition.”
Among the three stages of remembering—encoding (creating a temporary memory trace), consolidation (strengthening the initial trace so that you can store the information over time) and retrieval (calling up information)—normal older people often have the most problems with encoding and retrieval. These processes require concentration, focused attention, and using strategies to organize and understand information, all of which can be a challenge for some older people.
“How well you encode information in the first place has an impact on how well you can retrieve it later,” Dr. Sherman explains. “Becoming more actively involved in the memory process—for example, by forming mental pictures—can help you improve your ability to encode information ‘up front’ so you can recall it later.”
Your physical and mental health also influence your ability to remember. Poor nutrition, inadequate sleep, and medical problems may make learning more challenging. Sensory impairment, such as difficulty hearing or poor vision, can hamper the ability to acquire new information. Depression, anxiety or excessive stress can interfere with concentration and make it difficult—or impossible—to learn.
“Don’t assume that a poor memory is an unavoidable aspect of aging,” advises Dr. Sherman. “Make an effort to manage your health problems and continue challenging your memory. By taking care of yourself and using active learning strategies, chances are you’ll be a successful learner.”
TRY THESE EIGHT ACTIVE LEARNING STRATEGIES
The following active learning strategies are effective ways to boost memory ability. Dr. Sherman recommends trying them out to see which ones suit your learning style and help you retain information you want to remember:
1: Zero in
Pay attention to one thing at a time—don’t multi-task. Learn to ignore distractions. Concentrate on the main points and ignore details. Think about what you’re learning and why you want to remember the information. Limit the amount of information you learn at one sitting.
Group information by category—for example, to remember what’s on your shopping list, divide items into fruits and vegetables, dairy, and meat.
Break down information into smaller parts, and tackle each part separately. Remember numbers by dividing them into smaller units: instead of 125833076, think 125-833-076.
4: Link new information to established memories
Connecting new memories to existing ones makes them easier to remember. For example, remember the name of a new acquaintance by linking her with your sister, who has the same name.
5: Use multiple senses
Say the new information out loud. Write it down. Read it over.
6: Engage your imagination
Forming mental pictures or visualizing action can help you remember. For example, to remember the time of your 3 o’clock doctor’s appointment, see yourself entering the office as the clock strikes three.
Rehearse new information to embed it in your memory. Repeat names of people you are meeting for the first time. Practice playing a new piano piece a number of times until you learn the music thoroughly.
8: Use memory aids
Jot down notes on complex or extensive information to help you remember. Use aids such as calendars, smart phones, answering machines, and sticky notes.
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