A common misconception about the aging brain is that there is nothing that may be done with regard to memory, and that new information cannot be learned. Often, simple lapses in memory or decline in recall speed, are mistaken for dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Although some change may be expected as you age, that doesn’t mean you can’t do something about it — you can be proactive in using some strategies and lifestyle adaptations. If you don’t learn or receive good information, you can’t remember it. Your memory is only as good as the information you take in!

How Does Memory Work?

When you receive new information, it is managed in one of three ways: sensory, short-term or long-term. It is like a three-story house. The bottom is the easiest to get into. The second level (short-term) isn’t as easy to get into as the main floor, and the hardest level to get to is the long-term or third floor.

Sensory memory contains information received immediately from a person’s senses by the brain. Your brain then quickly decides whether this information needs to be processed further or disregarded. If our brains tried to remember everything they sense, the capacity of the brain would be overloaded in a matter of minutes.

Most things in the sensory memory that are further processed are pieces of information that meet our basic needs and interests, or things that are out of the ordinary. Everything else just goes away.

If the information is further processed, it moves into the short-term memory or working memory. Your short-term memory holds information for several minutes and then disregards it if it is not repeated or rehearsed. This type of memory will hold about seven pieces of information: phone numbers, zip codes, serial numbers, etc. Your working memory is also where you remember things from your long-term memory and process them to suit your needs.

If a piece of information makes it through short-term memory and is deemed important enough to remember further, it may be encoded into your long-term memory where it may last forever! Long-term memory allows information to be retrieved even after it has been stored in the brain and out of conscious thought for a period of time. Information in long-term memory could have been learned, or encoded, ten minutes ago or ten decades ago.

Storage takes a long time and retrieval can be tough sometimes, thus the memory lapse when recall isn’t instantaneous. That is why you sometimes sit up in the middle of the night and remember the name of a person or a song that has been on the tip of your tongue all day long. Also, these memories are changeable. The act of recalling can actually change it some. It tries to help relate it to something else that makes sense.

Why Can’t I Remember?

Many things may contribute to your inability to remember that are not related to your age or the health of your brain. Many times you cannot remember something because you never really acquired it in the beginning. Also, once the information is stored, it may take a while to come back out. Speed of recall may decline with age — your fluid intelligence. Often, relaxing your mind will allow that information to surface again.

Medications and alcohol can impair your ability to remember and also to recall information. Stress, grief, depression, and other emotional presses can affect your ability to remember and recall information. When the brain is under pressure, it can’t function properly.

The brain needs certain nutrients to function properly. Without the right building blocks, the brain cannot make chemicals that make memories and allow the retrieval of information.

If this sounds like interesting information, be watching for information on the Master of Memory series that will be offered through the McPherson County Extension Office. Dates are being finalized. The information is very common-sense providing excellent ways to help you be a master of your memory.