Puzzle of the middle-aged brain and other teasers

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Faith WoodYou have a great idea as you are getting dressed in the morning. “Aha,” you think, “I’ll do something about that right away.” You walk from the bedroom to the kitchen for your first cup of coffee of the day and realize that the important thought you had has magically disappeared in the 15 feet or so you travelled. You rack your brain, but it’s completely gone.

You remember that you were going to run the dishwasher, so you turn it on. When you go to empty it later, the dishes are still rather dirty. Oh, yeah, you forgot to put in soap.

You go to the grocery store specifically to pick up an item. When you get back home, you realize that you got anything and everything except that particular item.

So what’s the story? Are you losing your mind?

For those of us in middle age – which, by the way, is between the ages of 40 and 65 and will no doubt become 65 to 75 when you reach your sixth decade – there are certain frustrations associated with aging (you’ve finally admitted it, you need reading glasses). The short-term memory lapse is just one of them, and it happens to more people than you might think. (Thank goodness, you thought you were completely losing it and it’s so nice to know you’re not alone!)

Another thing you might notice is that you are more easily distracted and can’t multi-task quite as well. You start sorting laundry, the phone rings and your washing plans are gone, only to be remembered a few hours later when you discover all those clothes lying on the bedroom floor. (“Oh, right, that’s what I started doing this morning.”)

However, at this stage of life you also have a lot of skills you didn’t have when you were younger. You are more empathetic. Your inductive reasoning skills are at their peak. You’ve been around for a lot longer and you know how to navigate life’s challenges much better. You can reach solutions more quickly because you have more information needed to do so. You may not remember what you had for breakfast, but you can problem-solve with the best of them.

You may be frustrated by your inability to remember names. However, such information has not vanished, it is simply stored away – waiting to be recovered with a little nudge. This problem is not one of storage, but of retrieval.

And even more good news: you are not losing brain cells (even if you are positive that you are). The general belief previously was that we lost up to 30 per cent of our brain cells as we aged, but studies have shown that that is not true. In fact, we have the ability to grow new brain cells.

Yet another upside, one which exercise buffs will appreciate. Studies have shown that treadmill workouts can improve both short- and long-term memory.

So if you are middle-aged, take heart. Easily distracted or not, your brain’s flexibility, capacity and capabilities are continuing to develop. You’re smarter, more content, better able to face life’s challenges. You see the possibilities, what can be done, and are more optimistic.

And that memory thing? Don’t freak out; just laugh at life’s little quirks. A friend of mine has learned to compensate by using sticky notes all over his office and kitchen … just to remind him who he is, where he is and what he is supposed to be doing that day (hour, minute). He also plans to fund his retirement by buying stocks in the company that makes Post-it® notes.

Troy Media columnist Faith Wood is a novelist and professional speaker who focuses on helping groups and individuals navigate conflict, shift perceptions and improve communications. 

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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