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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 22:46 GMT 23:46 UK
Memories start failing in your 20s
Memory loss
Without stimulation memories will start to fail in the mid-20's
American scientists have discovered that people's memories start to decline in their mid-20s.

Younger people do not usually notice that they are starting to forget phone numbers and names, but the scientists from the University of Michigan say the mental decline is usually already underway.

Mental stimulation can slow the process, they say.

Psychologist Denise Park, who directs the Centre for Ageing and Cognition at the university's Institute for Social Research said: "Younger adults in their 20s and 30s notice no losses at all, even though they are declining at the same rate as people in their 60's and 70's, because they have more capital than they need."

Cognitive performance is a direct result of brain activity and brain structure, much like cardiovascular fitness relates to our ability to exercise and perform physical tasks

Dr Denise Park

Brain stimulation

But she stressed that keeping the brain stimulated is vital to retaining memory function.

"Cognitive performance is a direct result of brain activity and brain structure, much like cardiovascular fitness relates to our ability to exercise and perform physical tasks.

"Only 40 years ago, we had little understanding of how smoking and cholesterol levels were related to cardiovascular health.

"It's likely that just as diet and exercise help to keep our bodies fit and healthy, we'll find ways to improve the functioning our ageing minds."

She said her research had also shown that older people were more susceptible to memory distortions than the younger generation.

Mental exercise can keep the brain healthy

Older men and women were more likely to remember false information, such as bogus medical claims that shark cartilage cures arthritis, as the truth, she said.

Younger people will remember hearing the claims, but are more likely to remember that it is false.

Her team studied more than 350 men and women aged between 20-90 for the study, which is due to be presented at the American Psychological Association later this month.

Using a grant from the National Institute on Ageing, Dr Park is now using neuro-imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging to study what goes on the brains of people of different ages.

UK study

Dr Felicia Huppert, senior lecturer in psychology in the department of psychiatry at Cambridge University, said a national study carried out in the UK in 1987 had shown similar results.

Their study "The Health and Life-Style Survey" looked at over 7,000 people aged between 18-96 and also showed early memory decline.

But Dr Huppert stressed this was closely linked to how the people kept their brain's stimulated.

"Memory like anything else needs to be utilised. For most young people their formal learning stops when they stop school and when they stop learning their memories are going to start to decline.

"You can have people in their 70s and 80s who have better memories because they keep their brain's stimulated.

"If you want your memories to decline less you do have to keep on being mentally stimulated throughout your lives."

See also:

09 May 01 | Health
Walking 'slows mental decline'
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