I’m working on a series of articles about memory for the online magazine Suite 101, and have been immersed in the amazing ways memory impacts life without us ever fully seeing or understanding its influence. Recent technological neuroimaging advances and extensive neuroscientific research have revealed more and more about how the brain receives data, stores it as memory, then retrieves it later. We know that memory is not just activated pictures in the mind–snapshots if you will–but is a complex structure built from multiple contributors.
Fragile Memory More Frightening than Cancer
But it seems that the more we learn about the fragility and fallibility of the brain’s memory system, the more afraid of that reality we become. Instead of using the knowledge that our memories are not as logical, linear, or precise as we might like them to be to empower us, we are using that information to worry. Polls show that people over 50 fear losing their cognitive skills as they age more than they fear getting cancer. As the Baby Boomer generation ages, memory–or shall I say trying to hang onto it– is becoming the latest obsession.
Case in point, I had brunch with a friend and her parents recently and her articulate, vibrant and active mother revealed she thinks she has Alzheimer’s disease. We all laughed, since her mother is in her sixties and looks and acts ten years younger than that. But in thinking about her comments later, I realized she’ s not kidding. She’s seriously worried that her declining memory could be a pathological problem rather than a more normal change that occurs as one ages. With the spotlight shining brightly on Alzheimers and dementia in an aging population and affecting more and more people, the fear is almost palpable.
New Strategies for Maintaining Cognitive Sharpness
Enterprising entrepreneurs, psychologists, neuroscientists and creative arts advocates however, are joining forces to not only understand memory, but to find strategies for maintaining a healthy memory system in later years. In addition to books filled with memory-enhancing exercises (an Amazon search revealed more than 10,000 titles) and computer programs and products like Nintendo’s Brain Age, the Wall Street Journal reported in “‘Brain Gyms’ Offer Grey Matter Workouts” in March 2009 that brain health is the latest fitness craze. The drug companies and supplement industry are in the hunt as well, with Business Week asking if there is “A Boom in Memory-Enhancing Drugs?” and natural health companies pitching supplements with names like Mega Memory and Neuro-Natural Memory.
Is Cognitive Exercise All There Is to Maintaining Memory Health?
While studies prove these kinds of activities can be useful in maintaining brain health, my money is on a more creative, and ultimately more realistic approach to making the natural changes in memory as we age an acceptable and enriching evolution. The rediscovery or therapeutic introduction of arts-related activities like storytelling, memory-related art projects, and memoir writing not only encourages the pursuit of time-honored activities that support the aging brain and engage the elderly with others, but provides a boost to mental health by connecting past to present with respect for life experience rather than despair at the loss of cognitive skills.
Memory is Important to Society
Although reminiscence therapy is commonly used to treat dementia and Alzheimer’s patients, the cultural and social implications of recording and orally passing down the life-lessons and wisdom of the elderly shouldn’t be ignored in a Western society full of negative stereotypes of aging. Sociologist Maurice Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory posits that memory is “… not a matter of reflecting on the subjective mind” but “…how minds work together in society.” Sharing and seeing images of the past contribute context and help form identity in all members of a group, therefore the pursuit of all aspects of brain health–not just the slowing of cognitive memory loss–is perhaps the best hope for not only making the later years of aging individuals more satisfying and enriching, but also for nourishing the well-being of society as a whole.