Memories are made of this
What do you get when you string all of your memories together?
You get a life.
It could be said that memories are pieces of the life we’ve lived. So to lose some of those memories, perhaps even permanently, is rather like losing bits of our life. This has real relevance for those of us who worry about losing some of our precious memories as we get older.
The good news is that memory loss may not be such an inevitable aspect of getting older as many of us think.
For years, scientists believed that new neurons – nerve cells – stopped being produced in the part of our brain called the hippocampus as we reach old age. The hippocampus is a region of the brain which plays a central role in learning, memory, mood and emotion.
Experts have known for a long time that the hippocampus shrinks as we age, and that this can lead to forgetfulness. But recently, scientists have found that older men and women can actually generate the same level of new brain cells as younger people.
Researchers are finding growing evidence that older people have similar ability to make thousands of hippocampal new neurons from progenitor cells as younger people do. They also found equivalent volumes of the hippocampus across ages. Even the oldest brains, in their 8th decade of life, were still producing new brain cells.
In other words, when people lose brain cells in old age, they might be able to generate new memories using those new brain cells.
However, it was also found that older people generally had a reduced ability to form new blood vessels in the brain, and that any new neurons they formed were less able to make connections.
So even though brain cells in the hippocampus continue to be produced into later life, those cells are less connected and have a reduced supply of oxygen and nutrients.
That said, there’s something you can do to help counter those factors. It’s called exercise. Exercise boosts blood flow into two key regions of the brain associated with memory, and this can help even older people with memory issues improve cognition.
An important study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, documented changes in long-term memory and cerebral blood flow in 30 participants, each of them 60 or older with memory problems. Half of them underwent 12 months of aerobic exercise training; the rest did only stretching.
The exercise group showed 47 percent improvement in memory scores after one year compared with minimal change in the stretch participants. Brain imaging of the exercise group showed increased blood flow into the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus, both of which are vital in memory function.
So even if you forget most of the other long words in this article, remember to add aerobic exercise to your lifestyle.