The Age Old Question

Memory Post It NotesCommon knowledge is that we can do nothing about it – we cannot stop it or go back in time. As we age, our bodies change. The heart becomes larger, but circulation becomes less efficient.  We experience a decline in our hearing, vision, breathing, and reaction time. Kidneys become less efficient and our muscle mass decreases. The aging process also alters the brain – shrinking blood vessels mean there is less oxygen and fewer nutrients going to the brain. Scientists have also noted that the brain itself decreases in size during the aging process.

According to Aaron C. Malina at the Northshore University Healthsystem, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, “As the brain changes, so does our ability to process, retain and retrieve information. Learning gets slower, and sometimes, if information is presented too quickly or in the midst of many distractions, we may never learn it.  It takes longer to remember (or retrieve) information from memory, attention to detail decreases, and multitasking becomes more difficult. In addition, our ability to find words also declines.”

The reason why Dr. Malina’s article interests me is that some people, such as survivors of brain injury, experience the symptoms of memory loss much earlier than their golden years. I wanted to know if common knowledge about memory loss  — there is nothing we can do — is wrong. In fact, Dr. Malina and many others believe there is something we can proactively do to reduce memory loss.

We have to pay attention to the information we want to remember. Regardless of how we choose to pay attention – see, hear, smell, taste, touch, imagine — we have to notice it, understand it, and file it properly for future retrieval. If we do not sense the information properly, pay attention to it, understand it, or file it properly, there may be nothing for us to remember or retrieve later. A misstep anywhere along the process of retaining and retrieving information can impact your thinking.  So, what can we do?

Step 1: Focus

The following tips can help you focus. However, like any other tool, you have to use it repeatedly before you become an expert:

  • Plan ahead – Although I don’t use a SMART phone, or carry my calendar everywhere I go, I check my calendar every morning and every evening, prepare everything I need one night in advance, and update my calendar at least two times per day.
  • Sleep – I know I need more, but I get so excited about helping others that I do not sleep as much as I know I should. I am often tired and I frequently take a 30-minute nap each day. Thankfully, I can nap anywhere. I nap in taxis, busses, trains, and planes. I nap in the middle of the day.
  • Take breaks and change tasks frequently to maintain interest – This is one of the few useful tools I learned in school. Classes in the United States tend to change every 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes. Many governments mandate that employees who work a certain number of hours are allowed to take a break.
  • Do the least interesting thing first – Some people do not understand the value of using this tool. By eliminating the least interesting task early when you are awake, you are left with only interesting tasks when you are tired. Your interest will help you complete tasks even when you are tired.
  • Minimize distractions – use ear plugs, a white noise machine, quiet music, an isolated area, or a closed door to ensure you can focus. Consider hearing aids, glasses, and body positioning to reduce distractions in crowded areas.
  • Focus on one thing at a time – multitasking is not efficient even though it is often used at home, school, and work. Switching between tasks is a waste of time, especially for those of us who have memory problems.
  • Repeat the information verbally, silently, and in writing.

Step 2: Understand

Studies show that the better you know something, the more likely you are to remember it. As such, you should consider using the following tools to increase your comprehension:

  • Look at the person who is talking.
  • Ask the speaker to repeat important points.
  • Summarize and paraphrase points as you understand them.
  • Ask questions.

Step 3: File

You can file and possibly retrieve information without realizing or understanding it. However, if you want to improve the likelihood of retrieving it, focus and understanding will improve your odds. you should consider using the following tools to enhance your filing system:

  • Place items (such as keys, wallets, purses, and phones) in the same location at the end of every day.
  • Color-code information in terms of priority or status.
  • Sound-code information in terms of priority or status.
  • Practice finishing and filing one task before starting another task.
  • Consider filing information in a storage device such as a phone, pocket-size computer, or digital recorder.

Thanks to Alan and Chelle for sharing the information, Dr. Aaron C. Malina for his contribution to the article upon which this post is based, and all the people who directly and indirectly contributed to the picture I used in this post.


  1. Scott,
    This is an excellent list of tips and I’ve got it pinned to my bulletin board as a daily reminder. But I want to point out the first thing Nikki mentions in her comment is working out. Aren’t there oodles of studies confirming the benefits of exercise for mind and body?

    1. Howard, I absolutely agree that physical exercise is extremely important. I currently exercise 3 to 5 days per week, but I could not do much more than walk from the bedroom to the bathroom or kitchen during the first two years after my surgery.

      Based on the information in the post, I would list exercise under the category titled “Focus.” The reason is that exercise, while tremendously exhausting, improves my attention to detail (focus), decision making, balance, enjoyment of life, and overall health. After exercise, and the nap that sometime follows, my memory is going to be better than when I woke up in the morning because I am more alert because I have been feeding my body with the oxygen, challenges, and encouragement it needs.

      Thank you for mentioning the importance of exercise.

  2. Scott, you forgot basic maintenance of health. Work out, take nutritional supplements, research things that extend the health of your brain (gincko) and your eyes (lutein), and I think, I have noticed, that understanding what kind of stimuli activate stress in your body and what relaxes you, is extremely important.

    You function differently. It doesn’t mean you don’t function.

    1. Nikki, I didn’t forget to include some of the things you mentioned. I stay away from topics that are extremely controversal. I’m not suggesting that gincko and lutein don’t help, it’s just that their benefits are not universally acknowledged. I also realize that 100% agreement about anything is a highly unrealistic ideal. I purposely do not recommend medication or supplements because I am not a physician, I don’t know the alergies or adverse reactions of everyone who reads the post, and there have been many studies that show supplements may be harmful. Again, I want to empasize that I don’t disagree with you, but I have not seen enough evidence that proves the supplements you mentioned are actually beneficial.

    2. Nikki, Howard’s comment caused me to think about my reply to your comment. Although I do not use the supplements you mentioned, I know that many people are happy with their results. I would put exercise and supplements under the category titled “Focus” because I believe their contribution is to focus, in terms of the post.

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