On 6 March 2010, I was riding on an elevator to the nineteenth floor of the Consolidated Edison Building in New York City, where the 13th Annual USA Memory Championship was being held. One of the judges for that day’s event was also on the elevator.
During our brief ride, this judge asked if I would be one of the judges at this year’s event instead of a participant. I had been a participant at the four previous USA Memory Championships. Confused, I inquired as to why I would be a judge. This person’s response indicated that because of my age, I would no longer be a participant, but a judge. I was 55 years, 10 months old at the time.
This brief exchange got me thinking about memory championships and age. I began to wonder–why is it that people over fifty years of age seldom participate in memory championships? I started asking people. Here are the top three reasons I received, and my response to each reason:
1) The brain is aging. When one reaches the age of fifty, one’s brain slows down. Connections between brain cells are weakening or deteriorating, so one forgets information easily.
My Response: Exercising and eating healthy foods will keep one’s brain functioning well. Also, memory training keeps one’s brain functioning at a quicker speed, with greater accuracy. If one exercises, eats healthy foods, and practices, one should be able to compete in a memory championship and receive high scores, even if one is one is over fifty years of age. Winning a championship is possible.
2) Studies show that memory declines for people over fifty years of age.
My Response: Few people, except perhaps those involved in memory research or memory training, ever read studies about memory. The people I spoke with said they got their information about memory from newspapers, magazines, television or the internet. When someone tells me that one’s memory declines after fifty years of age, and I ask him or her which studies he or she is referring to, I never get an answer. Most people believe what they do about memory from secondary sources.
Granted, there are studies showing that memory declines with age. I personally discount these studies for two reasons. Firstly, the subjects used to create these studies have little or no memory training, so of course their brains show memory decline. The exercise and eating habits of these subjects are usually not known.
It is these studies that years ago became the basis upon which entire cultures formed their beliefs about memory. Because of this, one now comes to think that it is ‘normal’ for one’s memory to decline as he or she ages. In other words, little exercise, poor diet and little to no memory training is considered ‘normal’.
Secondly, I discount these studies because newer studies show that one can rebuild, renew and restructure one’s brain. One’s brain can create new nerve cells, called neurons, as one becomes older. This allows one’s brain to function more efficiently, especially when it comes to memory.
These newer studies prove the idea of ‘neuroplasticity’, or, ‘brain plasticity’. Effective brain plasticity occurs when one exercises and maintains a healthy diet. This makes it possible for one’s brain to produce new neurons, and, new connections between neurons.
So, if a fifty-plus year old person practices for a memory championship, his or her scores should be competitive with scores from younger participants because one’s brain is renewing itself through exercise and a healthy diet.
Brain plasticity is the ‘new normal’.
Sadly, the belief that one’s brain deteriorates as it ages is still popular. One way to counter this belief is to have more people over fifty years of age entering memory championships, to show that memory improvement is possible.
3) You are ‘one in a million’, an exception. It is not possible to do what you do.
My Response: When people hear what I do with memory, they often say I am an exception or a rarity. This reasoning allows these people to convince themselves that they are not equipped to participate in a memory championship.
In reality, my memory functions the way it does because I know my brain rebuilds itself, and, I train. My brain creates new neurons and connections because I exercise and eat healthy foods (well, most of the time). Also, my memory training is productive and ongoing. My memory is not exceptional. My memory is normal.
So, why is it that people over fifty years of age seldom participate in memory championships? Because they believe in the ‘old normal’ (little exercise, poor diet, and, little or no memory training). Note: I am not referring here to people who have previously participated in memory championships, and are no longer involved because they are over fifty years old. Some of these people are now memory trainers themselves!
If former memory championship participants who are now over fifty years of age wish to participate in memory championships again, I believe this would help to change the perception that older people ‘naturally’ have memory decline. The results of their participation will have an impact on how organizations devoted to older people talk about memory to their members, and it will have an impact on how these organizations talk to the public at large.
The more fifty-plus year old people participate in memory championships, the more the ‘new normal’ will be seen as ‘normal’ by everyone.
So, how did I do at the 2010 USA Memory Championship? As it turns out, I finished in 7th place. My scores that day were higher than the first time I participated in the USA Memory Championship in 2006, when I was 51 years old. I expect that my scores at the 2011 USA Memory Championship will be higher. That increase in scores will be…’normal’.
T Michael Harty
19 June 2010