Published: Nov. 24, 2004
Updated: May 6, 2010
"What did I do with my keys? Who was I supposed to call? Where did we say we’d meet for dinner?”
While people of all ages have trouble remembering everything they need to in these complex times, forgetfulness seems to become more prevalent as we age. When those “senior moments” are seen as a possible indication of encroaching Alzheimer’s, they can be frightening as well as frustrating.
But don’t panic just yet. Duke geriatrician Heidi White, MD, urges older people who fear they’re getting too forgetful to consult their doctor to identify other possible causes. "Sometimes, simple things are behind memory lapses," she says. Contributing factors may include medications (especially sedatives, which can dull the mind); alcohol, which interferes with sleep; depression, which affects concentration; and hearing or vision impairment.
Another fix for forgetfulness is to boost physical activity. Recent Duke research indicates that aerobic exercise may not only lift depression in the middle-aged and elderly, but also improve memory, planning, organization, and the ability to juggle several mental tasks at the same time.
Working out is by no means a silver bullet, and the data on links between exercise and cognition are still inconsistent, says Duke psychologist James Blumenthal, PhD. Still, perhaps because of increased blood flow to the brain, he says, "Exercise may be able to offset some of the mental declines often associated with the aging process."
You can also put your mind through its own fitness routine. “Neurobics” -- mental exercises that use the full range of senses in unusual ways to help forge new connections among different parts of the brain -- can work wonders for your brain's conditioning. Whether it’s showering with your eyes closed or finding your way around a foreign country, such challenges keep the mind more youthful and resilient.
A rich spiritual life, too, can enhance mental functioning. Numerous studies at Duke and elsewhere provide clear evidence that those who are involved and active in a religious congregation -- whatever the particular faith -- live longer, healthier lives. According to Harvey Jay Cohen, MD, director of Duke’s Center for the Study of Aging and author of the book Taking Care After Fifty, participation in a spiritual community relieves boredom, provides mental stimulation, and prevents us from becoming isolated.
“Improved physical and mental health is not necessarily the reason why someone should be religious or spiritual,” Cohen says, “but it seems to be a positive byproduct."