Can I improve my memory as I get older?

13 June 2017

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Question

I’m 53 years old and have noticed that my memory is not as good as it used to be, how can I improve it?

 

 

Answer

Duncan - The first thing to say is that memory is an incredibly complex phenomena. Indeed, one of the major roles of the brain is to learn from our experience and our environment and apply that knowledge to new scenarios. But there’s been a lot of research exploring whether or not you can train people’s memories and whether that will yield improvements.

Most of that work’s being done with short term memory, or working memory. Initially there are some really exciting findings showing that you could train people’s short term memories and that would translate to benefits in wider everyday usage. And that’s spawned a whole series of brain training apps and programmes online, which you’ve probably all seen. However, that finding has been incredibly difficult to replicate.

Chris - As in, if you do these things you will improve your memory or improve your reasoning ability and so on? That sort of finding is hard to replicate, is that what you're saying?

Duncan - The original finding that was really exciting was that not only will you get better at the things that you’ve trained on, but that will also generalise to other things that you haven’t trained on.

Chris - So this is a miracle sales opportunity for people who make these games, but it’s not supported by the science!

Duncan - Yeah - kerching, kerching! My boss describes it as the “wild west” of cognition. There are people who make very strong claims about the benefits of this kind of training but, in my view and possibly the increasing consensus, is that when you look at studies that use the gold standard methods you can get very strong improvements on specific things that you train on but you won’t get wide generalisations.

Chris - Is a good way of thinking about this perhaps to say we know the study was done on the London cab drivers who learned the map of London, we saw that there was evidence of an improvement in the part of the brain, the hippocampus, where you store a map of the world. But we didn’t see every part of their brain suddenly becoming a lot larger, we saw just this discrete mapping of the world part of the brain get bigger?

Duncan - Yeah. That’s quite a nice analogy and way to think about it. Another way of thinking about it is that the way these training programmes work is that usually they’re very specific and they’re very divorced from reality, so you can have games online that don’t really bear any resemblance to real life. So one of the big moves in the training field now is to try and develop new ways of training people that are much closer to the things you actually want to improve.

For instance, with the cabbies, they got these specific gains in spatial navigation and spatial memory because they were doing it every single day. The idea is if we could design training in a better way that’s closer to the things which we’re trying to help people with, then it might be more beneficial.

Chris - Do you think this claim  - patients sometimes say to me -  I do the cryptic crossword every day and I know how fast I can complete it in, and I’ve got better and I think this keeps my brain agile into old age. Do you think that’s true?

Duncan - It could be true. It’s quite hard to demonstrate empirically, because empirically you have to do this very tightly controlled randomised controlled trial.

Chris - So you think people who can do the crossword, there in a selection group already?

Duncan - Yes.

Chris - They’re already pretty good so they’re much less likely to suffer problems?

Duncan - One of the studies that we have done is with people who had a stroke. Older adults, usually over 50 and who’ve had a stroke, and they’re experiencing some really quite profound attention and memory problems, which does show that there are some benefits to people like that who’ve had the current kind of training programmes. The pilot study was really quite promising in showing that there are people for whom the training could be beneficial.

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