Take charge of your health. Sign up for HealthyWomen newsletters:
Healthy Aging

Untangle My Brain Please?

By Sheryl Kraft

Share on:

I have a dear friend who just turned 80. Remarkable in many ways, the thing that is most enviable to me is her astounding memory. It seems that as mine gets worse, hers remains the same. She remembers every name and detail of every movie she has ever seen and every book she has ever read. She remembers, with remarkable clarity, details of all the conversations we've ever had (long after I've forgotten them). I've often wondered what it is that makes her mind so sharp. One reason, I’m convinced, is that she has so many interests – she's always using her brain. It's always being challenged and stimulated. And the other reason, I suspect, is genetic (just like her lack of grey hair. Honest).

Oh, memory. It's something we're all afraid of losing (in fact, a poll by Research America shows that adults are more than twice as likely to fear losing their mental capacity as their physical capacity) and something we're always trying to hang onto or at least, improve. Think about it: exercise is said to boost memory, so we make sure we get plenty of it, both physically – at the gym perhaps - and mentally – by doing a crossword puzzle or playing scrabble. Stress can make remembering more difficult, so we try to eliminate it – or at least control it - as much as possible. Certain foods high in antioxidants, like broccoli, blueberries and spinach are said to promote healthy brain function, so we add them to our diets. We're mindful of other things and their connection to our brain like sleep, meditation and herbal supplements. And if we can’t change it, then at least we try to cope with a bad memory, by using tricks like leaving little post-its around the house, making lists or using Mnemonic techniques, like when we need to remember the order of the planets: My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nuts
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

I just read about an interesting new study on memory. Scientists have found that some elderly brains are immune to memory loss. How? "Tangles" in the brain have been linked to memory loss, and some lucky people are actually immune to those tangles, resulting in super-sharp memories. Researches say that the accumulation of tangles is "a progressive phenomenon throughout the normal aging process." And while healthy people do develop some tangles, the most tangled of brains are linked to Alzheimer's disease. 

This Matters> So, there it is. Now that they know that 80-year-olds who performed memory tasks at the level of 50-year-olds have less tangles, researchers now need to determine the role environment, lifestyle and genetics play in the immunity to tangle formation and subsequent memory loss.

And perhaps, one day, there will be a "no more tangles" pill/spray/cream to improve our memories. Now, wouldn't that be nice.

How do you keep your memory sharp? And what do you think has the biggest influence on your memory, genetics or lifestyle?

Subscribe to Midlife Matters by Email


My mother used to use a spray on my hair called No More Tangles when I was a kid! One for brains would be a great thing. My grandfather had memory loss (never really clearly identified as Alzheimer's or just dementia) but his wife, my grandmother was sharp as a tack until she died, remembering everything. The difference was pretty shocking.

This subject scares me. I'm always losing my keys, glasses, and such and often find myself unable to retrieve a word or someone's name at the moment I need it.

Plus, my recall for events in the past? A bit rusty. My longtime galpals remember stuff that I've long forgotten. And I'm only 45!

Sometimes I put it down to stress, multi-tasking, limited RAM (in my brain), or a side effect of perimenopause but it does bug me.

So, I've started doing things to keep my brain sharp -- and even told my son about it, after he laughed at my addiction to playing Scrabble (I guess they call it Word with Friends) on my phone! Also crosswords, word or board games in general.

I'd love to learn another language too. You know, in my spare time.

I think my brain already needs untangling conditioner :-). My mind is so full, going in so many directions that nothing seems to stick.

Same thing happens to me, Donna. My mind is so busy going here and there that it's dizzying - and all the things I need to remember get bounced right off! Oh, we need to slow down, me thinks.

Fascinating news about the tangles theory. Makes sense. I also believe there is one factor you forgot: environmental toxins accumulated by our generation in their bodies, toxins like metals that did not exist in the world for more of the life of your 80-year old friend so could not be accumulated. I say this because I home-cared my elderly parents, who were of the same generation as your friend. Their minds were clear until 95, I'd say. Both passed at 97. My mom read the New York Times every day and discussed it with my husband. I can already tell my mind will not go that route. I have senior moments, as they are called. Actually, I fight back. What I do is make an extra effort to remember some short-term things. For instance, I would go over to our cottage and not remember what my purpose was once there. Now I remind myself all the way, keeping the thought front and center. This does not happen all the time, thank goodness, but it did become more frequent after 60.

What an interesting way of looking at it, Alexandra, one I hadn't thought of before. And I find, too, that I have to keep repeating things over and over if I walk from one place to another so I don't forget what I went for. (of course, when I start repeating them out loud, it's time to worry...)

I used to have an exceedingly sharp memory. My darling man called me his RAM drive-since I acted as memory storage for him.

Since my stroke last year, I've got the memory of a goldfish. I'm surprised to see the castle every time I swim around that bowl. Talk about frustrating. It does seem to be at least leveling out though. I can usually remember what I've gone to the grocery store for these days.

Good to know it's leveling off, Melanie. The grocery story is particularly challenging, for some reason - even when I go armed with a list, I STILL manage to forget things!

Oh, I'm so tangled! Already I forget things. I like to think it's because I'm busy with kids and don't have/take the time to process each bit of information like I should. That could be it, right??

Kris, That's one good reason, I say. I find that when I'm truly paying attention (aka NOT multi-tasking) things are a bit better and they don't fly out of my head at the speed they do when I have too much going on. Besides, the kids are always blaming their moms for bad things, so let's blame the kids for this one :)

Uh oh, if genetics are a primary factor in memory, then judging from my relatives, I am in trouble. I'm hoping that lifestyle does play a role in this, and I've heard that learning or studying about tangentially related things helps keep those brain "cobwebs" away.

It seems as if genetics could play a role, but then again, I know plenty of people who defy their genetics and don't follow in the path of family...so I say, do the very best you can with lifestyle modifications and don't let yourself think you are "doomed."

Yes, Sarah, I'd love to learn another language, too, but fear at this point, it'll be a real challenge...although that is the point, isn't it? And I know what you mean about friends remembering things that you don't. It happened to me recently when I got together with an old childhood friend."That really happened?" I kept asking. Downright frustrating!

MandMe- Yes, of course I remember (thankfully, I remember!) No More Tangles for your hair. Which is another interesting phenomenon about memory..how little seemingly-insignificant things stick, while other more recent important things don't...

I like Marthaandme's idea about the No More Tangles spray--I had the same spray as a kid. Fascinating study. One way I like to keep my brain engaged is by pairing exercise with education. I listen to interesting podcasts while I'm out walking--I find I have to work to create a picture in my mind of the people who are sharing their stories (and I'm getting fit in the process).

Very interesting. I find that when I'm really connected emotionally or intellectually to something, that is I'm invested or totally interested/immersed, I remember without even remembering to remember!

Meredith -I can't agree more. When I'm totally immersed, things seem to really stick without much effort at all. Nice...

I think it's safe to say that my brain is completely tangled up.

I really do think it matters if you eat healthy food and don't "junk up" your brain with sugar and additives and candy. I think turmeric and other herbs have been shown to help brain function as well (maybe fodder for another post!). Genetics, too, fair enough. But the more languages you know and the more education you have, the more you read and stay connected to others, the more likely you are to keep your memory healthy!

It is really amazing to read this one wonders if it is God gifted or other human habbits that make your brain alive.

Add new comment