TORONTO — Keeping active physically, intellectually and socially will help offset the inevitable losses of memory that come with aging, says Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute senior scientist Dr. Fergus Craik.
From left, Dr. Marla Shapiro and Dr. Fergus Craik speak with audience members after the talk. [Kelly Connelly/Baycrest photo]
Internationally recognized for his studies on human memory processes, Craik was recently elected a fellow of the Royal Society, the national science academy in Britain, and is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Memory.
He recently spoke about age-related memory loss as part of Baycrest’s Aging, Innovation and the Mind speaker series. Host for the program was CTV Canada AM’s health and medical contributor, Dr. Marla Shapiro.
Stressing that he was not speaking about those with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, Craik said that some kinds of memory do hold up – primary memory, such as remembering phone numbers or long-term facts; and procedural memory, such as how to play the piano or a sport.
What does fall off, he said, are episodic memory (what did I have for dinner last night?), prospective memory (I have to call the doctor tomorrow and book an appointment – and then remember to do it) and memory for details such as names.
“It doesn’t matter if you can’t find your keys,” he said. “What does matter is not remembering what the keys are for.”
Craik suggested making it a policy to, for instance, always keep your keys in the same place.
The more meaningful a memory is for you, the easier it is to remember it, he said. He told the story of a woman having trouble remembering the password for something. The password was “DJ,” and she finally linked it to her son’s bar mitzvah party, where there was a DJ.
Another change in memory over time is that people have less ability to focus on several things at the same time. For instance, he said, teenagers have no problem studying and retaining what they studied while listening to music. “As we get older, we are less able to block off outside information, and that becomes progressively harder.”
In that case, he said, adjust your environment when you are trying to learn, do or listen to something – “turn off the TV and tell people to stop talking around you.”
Your environment gives you cues to remembering things. “That’s why when a senior moves to a different apartment where everything is different, memory seems to worsen, at least for a time.”
It is easier, Craik said, to remember general information than to recall exact details. For instance, when “trying to remember where you parked the car in a parking lot, remembering that you parked on the red level is easier than remembering that you parked in section D7.”
He emphasized that physical activity helps maintain not only a healthy body, but also healthy brain function. He quoted an old saying: “What’s good for the heart, is good for the brain.”
Members of the audience asked about factors they had heard can affect the brain – for example that being bilingual all your life may have a positive effect, chemotherapy may interfere with memory, and genetics can play a role one way or the other. Craik suggested that perhaps all these factors, along with diet and lifestyle, may combine in the process.
Clinical psychologist Kelly Murphy joined Craik and Shapiro for the question period. “Look for ways to spend your leisure time, especially after you retire,” Murphy said. “Choose activities that you feel are enjoyable and challenging,” such as doing crossword puzzles, playing sports and talking to your friends.