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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Do You Remember?

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 9th 2007

If you are a certain age, let's say 55 and upward, you are familiar with the uncomfortable experience of walking into a room with great determination and purpose only to discover that you suddenly cannot remember why you walked into the room. Another scenario is that you are at a party and have met someone for the first time. When you introduce this new acquaintance to your spouse you find yourself in the embarrassing situation of not remembering their name, a name they gave you not more than five or ten minutes before. Or, "where did I put those pesky keys?" All of these types of situations leave many of "older folks" wondering whether we are experiencing the onset of the most fearsome illness of all, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. We then dismiss this terrifying possibility with a little jest about having a "senior moment."

Well, it seems that Harvard researchers in collaboration with the University of Michigan found that there is a reason for memory lapses as we age having nothing to do with dementia or Alzheimer's disease. The researchers studied two groups of people, 18 to 34 and 60 to 93. The research involved the use of cognitive tests for both groups and the use of fMRI to determine how the various parts of the brain were functioning during the tests. The results were fascinating.

The second or older group, ages 60 to 93 did not perform as well on the cognitive tests as the younger group. In addition, the fMRI revealed that the reason for the decline in memory ability in the older group was due to the deterioration of white matter in the brain. White matter enables the flow of information between the different parts of the brain, allowing the processing and recovery of information stored in the brain. In other words, the older group experienced the loss of the integrity of some of their white matter due to the aging process. The aging process, according to the researchers, also causes the gradual deterioration of the neurotransmitters that carry information along the pathway of neurons of nerve cells. What is not yet know is why some people seem to age with an absolute minimum of loss of memory or cognitive skills.

Some Observations:

If I remember correctly (a joke) the brain is amazingly plastic. What is meant by the plasticity of the brain is its amazing capacity repair itself; grow new dendrites at the ends of the nerve cells and to grow new synapses between neurons. In other words, the brain learns how to compensate for lost abilities and to find or form new pathways through which information can be processed and understood.

To encourage this plasticity or to take full advantage of it as we age it is important to stimulate the brain. Stimulation of the brain is not something that should begin with the aging process but should be done all along the way during our lives. Some examples of stimulating our brain and increasing its capacity are to do some of the following activities:

Stimulating our Brain:

1. Cross word puzzles

2. Computer puzzles and games

3. Learning a new language

4. Learning a new subject

5. Reading difficult and challenging books

6. Physical exercise is good for the brain, memory, thinking and the entire body

These are just a few of the activities that people can engage in to stimulate their brain, their thinking and their capacity to solve problems. I have seen so many examples of older people fearing to return to college because they are convinced they cannot learn math only to discover that with tutoring and studying they learned to master a subject they had always feared.

Bottom Line:

Keep on learning and never accept or believe that "an old dog cannot learn new tricks."

Your comments are welcome and encouraged (and do not forget it).

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

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