Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

2 minute read

Mid-Lifers Aren't More Forgetful, They Just Have Better Things To Think About

After you hit 40, you might start forgetting little things like where you put your keys. It's not because your mind is going; it's because you're busy thinking deep thoughts about life.

Mid-Lifers Aren't More Forgetful, They Just Have Better Things To Think About

[Photo: Leren Lu/Getty Images]

Good news for middle-aged folks today. If you find yourself forgetting simple things, like where you left your cup of coffee, then it might not be your memory getting worse. New research says that you just have better things to think about now you’re not a youngster anymore.

"This change in memory strategy with age may have detrimental effects on day-to-day functions that place emphasis on memory for details, such as where you parked your car or when you took your prescriptions," lead author Natasha Rajah told the McGill Newsroom.

Westend61/Getty Images

Most research into brain change, and the possible effects of dementia, is aimed at older people, so little is known about the way the middle-aged mind works. Is our increasing forgetfulness an early symptom of dementia, or is it a normal change? Rajah thinks it’s the latter.

Rajah’s team carried out an experiment with 112 adults aged between 19 and 76 years. First, participants were shown a series of faces on a screen. Then they were asked where the images had appeared on the screen (the images were shown on the left or the right), and when the image had appeared (from most to least recent).

Older people did worse on the test than younger participants, but the interesting part comes in the difference between how their brains processed the information. During the experiment, participants were hooked up to an fMRI machine to monitor their brain activity. Young people used their visual cortex to perform the task. "They are really paying attention to the perceptual details in order to make that decision," says Rajah.

Middle-aged people, on the other hand, drifted off and started thinking about themselves. During the tests, their medial prefrontal cortex activated. This, says McGill, is the part of the brain "known to be involved with information having to do with one’s own life and introspection."

If you, reader, are in your 40s, this will sound familiar. Introspection is what we do (when we’re not buying Harley-Davidsons or electric guitars, that is). But Rajah believes that our failure to concentrate on, and later recall, external information isn’t due to a decline in mental function. It’s just that we find different things important, and focus on them instead.

Still, that won’t help you find your coffee, or the key to your bike lock. After all, forgetfulness is still debilitating, even if your mind is otherwise healthy. The answer might be meditation, which helps practitioners to focus externally. "That may be why some research has suggested that mindfulness meditation is related to better cognitive aging," says Rajah.

The cures for the middle-aged, then, are themselves ancient. Meditation to keep the mind supple, and yoga to keep the body bendy, both of which are quite pleasant activities. The only problem might be in remembering when you have to go to class.

Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it's interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.

The Fast Company Innovation Festival