The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas on May 18, 1997 · Page 44
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The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas · Page 44

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Salina, Kansas
Issue Date:
Sunday, May 18, 1997
Page:
Page 44
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Around 40, people begin having trouble staying focused and retaining information. For 78 million baby boomers hitting the "memory barrier," it's a big fear. WHAT'S P.I.N. NUM WHERE ARE MY KEYS? I ^ \\\ MOMKX (,l II MAN Y ou're at a party, and you see someone across the room you know you've met but you can't recall her name. Or you're writing a shopping list when the phone rings, and then you can't remember the one item you really wanted. Memories may be beautiful, yet we might simply forget — not because we choose to, but because we're older. Forgetfulness, clinically called "age-associated memory impairment," can make people worry they are losing their mind or are in the early stages of Alzheimer's. It often first appears as difficulty recalling names or doing simultaneous activities, such as typing notes into a computer while talking on the phone. It can begin in the 30s but usually becomes noticeable in the mid-40s to early 50s, making it one of the most common problems of midlife. That's bad news for the 78 million-member baby boom, the leading edge of which hit 50 last year. To the generation that came of age in the fitness boom and wholeheartedly pursues youthfulness, even a slight decrease in memory seems like a tragedy. But just as boomers are credited with sending the stock market to record heights as they prepare financially for retirement, their interest in staying mentally fit ignited what Dr. Paul Costa, chief of the Personality and Cognition lab at the National Institute of Aging, calls "a proliferation of research" into why memory fails — and what can be done about it. What we know about memory Researchers don't yet know conclusively why almost everyone experiences some memory loss with aging. Brain cells "become less efficient for reasons that aren't explicitly clear," says Dr. Murray Grossman, director of the cognitive neurology section at the University of Pennsylvania hospital. "It could be shrinkage of the cells, or neurons, or there may be some dropout [cells shrink until they are so small they "die"], just the way our body has other cells that get less effective as we get older." Other theories include an age-induced decline in neurotransmitters — chemicals like dopamine that help brain cells communicate—or a degeneration of brain tissue caused by stress-released chemicals such as cor- tisol. The frontal lobes, which are particularly important in memory, are more susceptible to the loss of efficiency. What researchers haw established is that normal memory loss differs significantly from dementia. In normal aging, individuals may have a "tip-of- the-tongue" memory loss for words that haven't been used in a while, says Pomona College psychology professor Deborah Burke. "So if you haven't seen your niece in six months, or if it's simply an acquaintance, you may have Today's 40 year old is especially susceptible to memory loss because of the brain power used in "multi-tasking" - juggling work, kids, parents, technology problems remembering their name," she says. "With Alzheimer's, people lose names of common objects. like 'spoon' or 'plant.' " Perhaps 16 million people will develop Alzheimer's in the next 25 years, but memory loss is not the first sign of Alzheimer's. Researchers also have distinguished between types of memory — and determined that not all memory functions are affected by aging. Long-term memory seems to have little age impairment; short-term memory is most affected. Short-term memory includes "working memory" (retaining information several seconds while doing more than one activity, such as opening mail while talking on the phone) and "anterograde" memory (learning something new, like a list of names or groceries). Long-term memory includes "autobiographical" memory (recalling events in your life) and "semantic" memory (vocabulary). Researchers like the NIA's Costa hasten to point out that midlife memory impairment is small, and the most dramatic decline in memory doesn't occur until around age 70. "If y» u give someone in their 40s a list of 16 words to be remembered, they will recall anywhere from 10 to 16," he says. "A 70-year-old might recall five or six." The decline, he adds, is incre- 4 USA WEEKEND • May 16-18,1997 COVER AND COVER STORY PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONS BY WILLIAM DUKE FOR USA WEEKEND Rene Russo photo on ctwef by Micnael Greece (or

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