Memory is a strange and unknown topic. Scientists know more about stars that are galaxies away than they do about what’s in their own heads.
Seniors may be worried about what the future of their memory holds. This brief guide on how memory works can help set some of those worries at ease and help you understand how to support the memory you have.
Models of how memory works are all mostly theories, but the way most people refer to memory is in different parts. Whether these types of memory are actually separate in the brain is unknown, but it’s an easy way to talk about memory and try to understand it.
While you’re problem-solving or piecing together information, you need to hold on to several small pieces of information simultaneously. Imagine you’re doing a simple math problem in your head. You have to remember each of the numbers and figure out how they go together at the same time. That’s working memory.
Working memories have a very short shelf-life; they usually disappear once you don’t need the information anymore. But once your brain ties all the bits of information together, the bigger idea can be stored as a long-term memory.
Think of the process like a puzzle. Once you finish putting all the pieces together, you don’t remember what was on each individual puzzle piece — but you do remember the big picture.
Short-term memory is similar to working memory, and some researchers argue that they’re the same function. However, short-term memory refers to a broader set of memory functions than working memory, and the experience of using each kind of memory feels different enough to justify separating them.
Short-term memory occurs anytime you remember something for only a few minutes, whereas working memory is when you use short-term memory to connect several pieces of information.
Short-term memory is easily disrupted. Simply walking through a doorway is enough to effectively wipe your short-term memory. That’s why people experience the feeling of forgetting why they’re in a room.
Only a few units of information can be stored in short-term memory — researchers estimate around seven. But the tricky part is that a “unit of information” isn’t super well defined. For example, the phone number, 123-4567, could be seven individual pieces of information: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Or you could make it less by combining them like this: 12, 34, 56, 7. Since your brain processes a two-digit number as one word, it becomes less information to remember.
Long-term memory is the bank of information that seems to last indefinitely. Exactly how it works is disputed, and the ability to access it can seem mercurial. You might not be able to recall the singer of your favorite band but still know mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, for example.
Generally, the more you recall a specific memory, the easier it is to remember again. You also may find you can only remember information about an event but not the experience itself — or vice versa.
Short-term memories can become long-term memories. The current theory is that the brain selects certain short-term memories to be saved. If an event stands out as important, it’s more likely to be saved. Most emotionally intense events become long-term memories.
One way to consciously affect what becomes long-term memory is rehearsal. Rehearsal is when you repeat something to remember it, such as using flashcards for vocabulary. This works because your brain sees patterns and recurrence as important, so it saves that experience and information.
Scientists and doctors generally agree that sleep is connected to memory. Deep sleep is a crucial part of learning and memory. During the deepest part of sleep, the R.E.M. cycle, memories are categorized and solidified.
Being well-rested also seems to improve short-term memory during the day. There are still a lot of unknowns regarding how sleep and memory are intertwined. But getting quality sleep is almost always associated with improved memory function.
Nootropics are supplements or drugs that claim to boost cognitive functions, including memory. There is still a lot of research to be done on these drugs and supplements, but right now, there’s no significant evidence to show they help with preventing or slowing cognitive decline.
You should always consult a medical professional before taking a new drug or supplement.
Changes in memory and cognitive function are often a normal part of aging. While there may be ways to support memory function as you age and slow the process, some decline is typically inevitable.
Seniors may have anxieties about signs of dementia and be sensitive about possible symptoms. A lot of small memory issues are common forgetfulness that everyone experiences. Occasionally forgetting where you put something or blanking on a name aren't typically things to be concerned about.
If memory issues become more severe or if you just want peace of mind, talking to a medical professional is a good idea. Doctors can ask you a few questions and determine if you’re experiencing early dementia symptoms or just normal aging.
Seniors that do face memory care diagnoses can also still enjoy life and even work to protect some of their cognitive functions. Autumn View Gardens assisted living community offers memory care residents freedom and independence as well as activities designed to support those functions.