I don't learn/recall as well in my thirties. Strategies?
March 26, 2014 6:04 AM   Subscribe

What are some strategies to keep the mind in its best condition to learn, retain, and recall as we age? Its much harder and psychologically daunting for me to keep "fresh" than it was just a few years ago. How do I halt the decline or improve the situation?

Even with the partying, intoxication, and lack of focus, studying, or caring that I (enjoyed?) in my teens and twenties, I was able to quickly learn whatever I wanted/needed to and quickly recall and synthesize everything on cue.

I'm mid thirties now, with wife and two young kids. Typical family, work, financial responsibilities and pressures that come with this life period - though I probably stress about things a bit more than others. I'm sure the stress at a minimum doesn't help my learning abilities.

Now, I have a hard time recalling things that i've learned back in school or last week. I have to commit an overwhelmingly large part of my focus to anything I'm learning or know that I will have to recall in order to avoid having to relearn it again (or worse, not have it available when I need it).

Its common knowledge that learning is easier in our youth. But I think I'm struggling with it a bit more than normal. I also see many (most?) people my age or older dealing with it at least as well as I am.

What strategies are there to keep learning and recalling as we age?
posted by meantime to Education (11 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Well, first off, have you visited a doctor for a regular checkup, or if you already get regular checkups, have you told your doctor about this? Some of this may be normal age-related/stress-related stuff, but some of it might not be, and it might be worth getting it checked out. It could be due to something totally normal and treatable. (Thyroid issues, for example, can cause both brain fog and increased anxiety. Sleep apnea. Etc.)
posted by pie ninja at 6:17 AM on March 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm starting to think reducing mental clutter is an important part of this. The constant scanning and sifting of irrelevant information diverts mental energy, and those things you scanned take up room in your memory. If you're in your 30s you probably have a good 20 years of internet behind you.

I don't have any strategies apart from turning off devices and getting plenty of blood to your brain. Someone will probably recommend meditation. Gingko is a crock though.
posted by inkypinky at 6:18 AM on March 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Having a family and a job will frazzle you in a way that partying and going to school did not in your 20s. It's rather to be expected that you would not have the mental energy to learn new things. Maybe you can carve out a few hours a week to focus on yourself?
posted by dfriedman at 6:20 AM on March 26, 2014

How repetitive is your job? If you can do your job with one eye closed, then its not very challenging, and you're training your brain to not have to think too hard. Multiply by a few years and your mind becomes lazy and then real learning becomes 'hard.'

That's what I've found most detrimental. So I try to make sure I understand every detail at work, and go beyond my job scope and push myself.

Also multi-tasking is KILLING my focus.

Get more sleep.

Try to memorize things - phone numbers, a poem, grocery lists.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:00 AM on March 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Once you've been to a doctor to rule out any medical cause other than normal aging, I highly recommend Your Memory: How It Works And How To Improve It. It will give you some general information on how memory works (and why it sometimes doesn't.) It will also provide various mnemonic techniques that you can use to memorize numbers, shopping lists, names, etc.

These techniques are fairly standard, and they're widely available online and in other books. You can read about them by googling mnemonic peg system and mnemonic loci system. Still, Higbee's book was worth it for me. He gives a clear and straightforward explanation of what they are and how they work.
posted by yankeefog at 7:51 AM on March 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm aware that people tend to feel their memories become less sharp as they age, but I haven't heard a lot of people say their ability to learn declines with age. Assuming these are separate things, I'm not sure what you are experiencing is typical. Can you give some examples of things that you are having trouble mastering/retaining?
posted by Dansaman at 8:17 AM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Practice, practice, practice.
posted by ook at 10:04 AM on March 26, 2014

Sleep is a big thing for me as I get older. I notice that my recall gets worse and I am more likely have a problem with words if I am just a little short of sleep. I'm still not great when well rested but even two hours short of sleep has an impact on functioning that it didn't when younger.
posted by metahawk at 10:07 PM on March 26, 2014

I wonder if the perception of decline is greater than any objective decline?

I definitely echo the others who've suggested getting more sleep.

I'm a big fan of spaced repetition, and specifically Anki software.

I think the biggest problem as we move out of school and into the workplace is that we have fewer graded assignments and tests, so it's harder to know when we're doing really well, and harder to isolate specific sets of knowledge to focus on. (You're not reviewing chapter 23 in your biology textbook, and you're not getting a mid-term exam back with a grade on it; you're trying to halfway remember that NPR thing on comets you were half-listening to last week while you were wrestling the kids into their car seats.)

So here's what I would suggest:
  • Pick a few subjects you want to focus on right now - at least two, no more than five.
  • Do a focused pre-learning session where you pick out the things you want to remember.
  • Create fact-based flashcards in Anki or other good SRS flashcard software.
  • Find a way to explain the stuff you've learned to someone else. Ideally, partner with someone else, so you can explain your new information to that person and listen to their summaries as well. Nothing clarifies and cements info in your brain like having to teach someone else.

posted by kristi at 11:07 PM on March 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a middle-school teacher - kids who are stressed don't learn as well either. Stress is actually a huge factor in learning and memory.

A lot of the stress in your life may be unavoidable, but the more relaxed you are able to feel when you need to learn and remember, the easier it will be.
posted by mai at 7:56 AM on March 27, 2014

Came back to recommend 'brain food' i.e. omega-3 oils called DHA and EPA (not flax oil omega-3 which is the short chain variety). I recently picked up this brand and hopefully its not a placebo effect because I feel a lot better already.

I also recommend this book for doing a nutritional checklist to make sure your diet has all you need. It's a book about veganism but the Vitamin/Mineral/Fats section is beyond informative & easy to read. Its helped me feel a lot better in the last few months.

Basically our grandparents were right, cod liver oil is brain food.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:23 AM on March 28, 2014

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