If you've been feeling forgetful lately, it may be a good time to start exercising, eating healthier, or, if you smoke, consider quitting. A poll conducted by University of California, Los Angeles researchers and Gallup found an association between healthier lifestyle choices and fewer memory complaints across all age groups.
The study, published in the June issue of International Psychogeriatrics, asked over 18,500 adults ages 18-99 five questions:
- Do you smoke?
- Did you eat healthy all day yesterday?
- In the last seven days, on how many days did you have five or more servings of vegetables and fruits?
- In the last seven days, on how many days did you exercise for 30 minutes or more?
- Do you have any problems with your memory?
The study found that adults over 60 years old were more likely to lead healthy lifestyles compared to middle-aged (40-59 years old) and younger adults (18-39 years old). These findings surprised the researchers because they presumed that older age is a time of dependence and decline. Another surprise was that more young adults reported problems with memory than expected, according to a press release.
"These findings reinforce the importance of educating young and middle-aged individuals to take greater responsibility for their health — including memory — by practicing positive lifestyle behaviors earlier in life," said Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and the study's lead author.
Through analyzing phone interviews, researchers found that those who engaged in just one healthy behavior were 21 percent less likely to report memory problems; those with two positive behaviors were 45 percent less likely to report memory problems, and those with three behaviors were 75 percent less likely. Those with more than three were 111 percent less likely.
They also found that 70 percent of older people engaged in healthy lifestyle behaviors compared to 58 percent of young adults. Similarly, 12 percent of older adults smoked, a lower proportion than the 25 percent of young adults who smoke. Researchers attributed this to the possibility that older adults are already feeling the effects of aging and are taking into consideration what their doctors tell them.
Of the young people, 14 percent reported memory problems. Small suspects these problems result from reasons other than aging, particularly stress, being spread thin cognitively over multiple technologies, and multitasking.
"Memory issues were to be expected in the middle-aged and older groups, but not in younger people," Small said. "A better understanding and recognition of mild memory symptoms earlier in life may have the potential to help all ages."
Small's theory that technology and multitasking could have an effect on memory is supported by other studies. In a study published early May in Computers in Human Behavior, psychology professor Larry Rosen at California State University-Dominguez Hills sought to understand the effects of multitasking when learning. Researchers followed students into their homes and asked them to "study something important, including homework, an upcoming examination or project, or reading a book for a course." Once a minute for 15 minutes, the researchers marked down what the students were doing while they studied; the list included reading a book, writing on paper, typing on the computer, using email, looking at Facebook, engaging in instant messaging, texting, talking on the phone, watching television, listening to music, and surfing the web.
On average, participants studied for only 6 minutes before switching tasks. And participants who accessed Facebook reported lower grade point averages, which could serve as a rough proxy for memory. Research has shown in the past that multitasking while learning can cause spottier, shallower learning because the student doesn't have their full attention on their work, according to Slate. Because of this, they understand and remember less, and have difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts.
"This is a concern we should have distinct from worrying about how much kids are online or how muck kids are media multitasking overall," Victoria Rideout, a former vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation and now an independent research and policy consultant, told Slate. "I don't care if a kid wants to tweet while she's watching American Idol, or have music on while he plays a video game. But when students are doing serious work with their minds, they have to focus."
Small G, Siddarth P, Ercoli L, et al. Healthy Behavior and Memory Self-Reports in Young, Middle-Aged, and Older Adults. International Psychogeriatrics. June 2013. Accessed June 2, 2013.
Rosen L, Carrier L, Cheever N. Facebook and Texting Made Me Do It: Media-Induced Task-Switching While Studying. Computers in Human Behavior. May 2013. Accessed June 2, 2013.