Which memories last the longest?
Emotion and personal significance are two things that tell our brain to tag a memory as special or important. These memories get filed away for long-term keeping. They have lasting power and tend to stay with us even as we age and face the effects of cognitive decline.
How does growing old impact memory recall?
There are several reasons why some individuals have a hard time remembering even the significant, emotional moments in their life story.
The memory hasn’t been retrieved in a long time.
The reality is that memories fade as time goes by. A memory won’t be as strong and vivid if it hasn’t been recalled in years. Dr. Budson, Chief Cognitive & Behavioral Neurology at VA Boston said, “By not revisiting the memory, you’re telling your brain it’s not important, and other memories might be laid on top of it.”
The brain increasingly needs cues as we age.
Prior to the age of 30, when memory starts to decline, it is common for any random thought to jog another memory. The web of memories in the brain is still robust and healthy. As we age, the brain relies on external cues to retrieve memories. During a significant moment sounds, tastes, smells, touches, feelings are stored in the cortex and tied together as a memory by the hippocampus. Then, that memory gets tagged so that the frontal lobes can retrieve the pattern of information later. Any cue, such as hearing a song or smelling someone’s perfume as they walk by, can pull up an old memory.
The brain’s frontal lobe naturally declines over time.
One’s cognitive ability to retrieve information peaks sometime between 20 and 30 years of age. From there, the brain’s frontal lobes begin to decline. Since the brain’s frontal lobes are responsible for searching for memories, this impacts memory recall.
How can you improve your ability to recall old memories?
People of older generations are often asked life story questions by their families and loved ones. Presumably, every grandparent would scramble at the opportunity to relive pastimes and share life-shaping experiences with their grandchildren. Remembering all the details can be difficult, though. If you struggle to recall memories from long ago, here are some tips to help you generate what’s hiding away in your brain somewhere.
- Listen to music or radio programs you used to love
- Cook a meal or infamous family recipe that has been passed down
- Smell things that may jog your memory (i.e. your grandfather’s pipe, a perfume you wore when you were young, your mother’s chicken noodle soup, etc.)
- Visit a place from your youth (i.e. a bowling alley you frequented, a pool you swam in every summer, your grandparent’s lake house, etc.)
- Watch an old TV show or film
- Look at newspaper and magazines from a certain year or decade (try your local library or online archives)
- If you have boxes of things from your past (clothing, medals, toys, scrapbooks, blankets, etc.), pull these items out and reminisce
- Go through old photographs
General Cognitive Maintenance/Improvement
- Do crossword puzzles, sudoku, card games, trivia or any other activities that keep you mentally active
- Stay socially active (this helps ward off isolation and depression, which can lead to memory loss)
- Stay physically active (150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week)
- Get enough sleep (7-9 hours per night)
- Write things down to cement them in your memory (this goes for daily tasks and to-do lists but also journaling or writing a life story memoir)
- Eat a brain-healthy diet of whole foods that include: berries, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, whole grains, fish, legumes, etc.