New Rules for Saving Your Memory

Are you doing everything you can to stay sharp?

by Judy Jones
Photograph: Illustration: Christopher Silas Neal

A |  No, not at all. Women do have a menopausal issue, and certain aspects of their changing hormone profile can amplify some of the natural effects of aging on the brain. But on the whole, the gender differences in this area are not big. More important, I think, is the fact that women assume responsibility for crucial threads in the social fabric that guys don’t. As a result, women are required to be more reliable. I’m often asked, “Can women multitask?” And the answer is no. Neither can men. The brain cannot multitask. But women often handle a variety of separate tasks during the day: They go to work, pick up the kids and still do most of the housework. It’s difficult enough to juggle all those demands when your brain is young, but as you get older, your brain becomes more easily confused by the scope of your to do list. You may, for instance, forget to pick up milk—or your kids!—on your way home from work.

Q | You also write that under chronic stress, excessive amounts of cortisol can damage the hippocampus, crippling the brain’s ability to learn and remember. What does this mean for women in midlife, who are so often dealing with stressful situations such as raising teenagers, caring for aging parents, adjusting to empty nests—and now, dealing with a severe recession?

A |  The type of stress that most harms the brain arises when you feel a lack of control over negative situations, like having a tyrannical boss. It arises when you can’t control when or how often the stressor hits you and when you can’t control its severity once it arrives.

Say, for example, you experience injustice in your workplace. Maybe you were passed over for a promotion that was given to a less qualified man. A woman still earns only 77 cents on every dollar a man earns. So by the time you get to your forties, you’ve been bumping up against the glass ceiling so long you have calluses on your head! The ways in which the workforce still favors men over women can produce the type of stress that’s toxic and which, over time, can become so overwhelming it causes brain damage.

Q | How about some good news concerning memory—is there any?

A |  Yes, there is. There are two things that are well-documented in the research literature that can help you control the downward mental spiral of aging. The first is to stop and take an inventory of your life. Pinpoint those areas where you feel overwhelmed and helpless, and try to take command of the situation. If you feel a general frustration in your job, sit down for a talk with your boss. Just making your feelings known can give you a sense of control. If that doesn’t help, then try to transfer to another position.
Specifically, research has shown that when people do feel in control, they can have a negative experience without being stressed. So if your manager bawls you out but you know you’re already going on job interviews, you won’t be as affected as you might have been earlier. It’s the equivalent of holding your hand over a lit stove and saying, “So what?” It’s the perception of lack of control that produces the bad reaction. It’s all psychological.

Q | And what’s the second piece of good news?

A |  Let me begin by explaining that there are two different ways people age. The first I call the Mike Wallace style of aging. Wallace just turned 91, and he still has a lion of an intellect. And there’s a whole gigantic population of people who are aging just like him; they’re smart, they’re sophisticated, they retain their cognitive function well into their eighties or beyond. Then there’s a whole other population that is not aging well at all, even in their sixties. So the question was asked almost 20 years ago, “Is there an independent variable that can predict whether you are going to age like Mike Wallace or like that other segment of the population?” And the answer turns out to be yes, there is.

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