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3 ways that your memory stays sharp even as you get older

While overall memory declines as we age, that’s far from the end of the story. In fact, there are certain things older people continue to remember quite well, says researcher Alan D. Castel.

Our memories are our identities, and at my lab at UCLA, I’ve worked to understand how we remember what matters to us, especially as we age. Memory decline is one of the first things that concern people about growing older — it can start after the age of 20, so being more forgetful when you are 60 or 70 is often normal. And while a vast amount of research has shown the deficits that accompany aging, it’s far too simplistic to say that the elderly have impaired memories. In fact, there are many things older adults remember quite well. Here’s a look at a few of them:

1. Older people tend to remember the essentials.

A great deal of memory research focuses on what might be considered by some of us to be mundane — word lists, face-name pairs, studying and being tested on pictures — and it’s unclear why this might be important to remember. But how about things that are of real concern or interest?

Imagine you’re packing for a trip. You want to make sure you’ve put in the most important items, the ones that would be extremely costly and/or inconvenient if you forgot them (e.g., your passport, your credit cards). While I wish we could have followed people on their vacations to see what they left behind, we created an experiment to examine this in the lab. We presented subjects with 20 possible items that you might pack on a trip (e.g., medications, passport, sunscreen, toothbrush, phone charger, deodorant, swimsuit, sandals). When we later asked them to recall the items, the older adults (average age was 68) recalled more of the items that they felt were important than the younger adults (average age of 20.4), even though they remembered fewer items overall. We’ve since done other studies showing older adults will have a greater memory for important medication side effects from a long list and for a grandchild’s dangerous allergens than younger adults.

We did another experiment when we came up with a list of words to remember. Some were more important and paired with higher point-values or rewards, while others were less important and associated with lower point-values or rewards. The goal was to maximize one’s overall memory reward — to do that, you needed to remember the words paired with the highest values. We found that older adults remembered fewer words overall but recalled just as many of the highest-value words as younger adults.

2. Older people tend to remember what they need to do in the future.

Sometimes the most important things for us to remember involve future actions. This is called “prospective memory” — and it might take the form of remembering to take medications at a certain time tomorrow, or paying a credit card bill on a particular date or else we’ll get penalized. While prospective memory might be worse in older age, there are important exceptions. Researchers have found a “prospective memory paradox”: despite older adults doing poorly on laboratory tasks of prospective memory, they fare well in the real world.

For example, in research studies older adults may be asked to perform a future task such as “When you see the word ‘president’ on the next page, please raise your hand.” Sometimes they get so focused on reading that they forget to react when “president” appears — but does that mirror the forgetfulness of not taking one’s medication at noon in 2 days? As many of us know, older adults have often developed strategies to prompt their prospective memories, like putting their wallet by the front door or their medications by their eyeglasses. To bridge this gap between lab-based prospective memory tests and real life, one study asked people who came to the lab to mail back postcards every week; researchers wanted to determine how younger and older adults would compare in remembering to do this future-focused task. To their surprise, it was the older adults who diligently mailed in the postcards each week.

Of course, some older adults remember to do things the old-fashioned way: they write it down in a calendar they consult every day. When I called then-97-year-old John Wooden, retired from a legendary career as a basketball coach, to schedule an interview, he wrote it in a calendar. Then, he called me the day before to confirm I was still coming to see him — he was reminding me!

3. Older people tend to remember what intrigues them.

Humans are curious from an early age. My young son loves the adventures of the mischievous Curious George and of learning about the world. Our curiosity blossoms with age, but we typically become interested in different things as we get older. After all, Curious George is not the favorite bedtime reading of most adults.

To test your own level of curiosity and memory, read the following trivia questions, decide how interested you are in learning the answers (on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being not interested at all, and 10 being extremely interested), and then try to come up with answers (the answers are at the very bottom of this article):

What mammal sleeps the shortest amount each day?
What was the first product to have a bar code?
What was the first nation to give women the right to vote?

These are fairly difficult trivia questions, and some are probably more interesting to you than others. In one study done in my lab, younger and older adults were given questions like those that you just read. Much like those, all of the queries were chosen such that we guessed almost none of the participants knew the correct answers. Afterwards, the subjects gave each a curiosity rating — showing how interested they were in learning the answer. They were then told the answers. A week later, the same subjects were presented with the same questions and asked to recall the answers. It was the older adults who remembered the ones they were more curious about — and they forgot the less interesting ones. The younger adults didn’t show this pattern.

There’s a certain pleasure in recalling trivia and absorbing new information about the world. I’ve noticed the most popular games at senior centers and retirement communities often involve this kind of random knowledge. People sometimes worry about having too many stray facts in their minds. But even though trivia may appear to have little useful value, the fact that it continues to arouse curiosity — and sticks in older people’s minds — shouldn’t be discounted.

4. OK, older people may forget what they’re doing in a particular room, but they can jog their memory.

Our surroundings can influence how we remember things. Have you ever found yourself in the kitchen and not had the faintest idea what compelled you to go there? This is a common occurrence for everyone, but especially for older adults. Some research suggests that walking through doorways or crossing physical boundaries may actually trigger forgetting. When you move from one place to the next, the doorway leads to a new environment that does not provide the necessary cues to remember what you were doing in the other room. As you enter the new room, your brain must either keep in mind or re-create what you were thinking when you were in the earlier room — but our minds often wander as we go to another room or we start thinking about something else.

The best way to remember what you need is to walk back into the first room where you originally had the thought of why you needed to go to the other room. The context of that original room can trigger your original intention. In addition, walking is one of the best ways to keep your memory sharp. With enough time and walking, you’ll find the memory eventually comes back.

P.S. But don’t get too hung up on what you can and can’t remember.

Our beliefs about our memory can be very influential. In fact, many of us have negative beliefs and expectations about aging’s impact on the brain. This kind of “stereotype threat” can make people perform stereotypically — in a way that is consistent with what they think is expected of them. Stereotype threat has been examined to determine if it causes older adults to underperform on tests of memory. Labeling something a memory test, or asking people to come to a memory study, does appear to invoke anxiety, and research has shown that renaming it as a “wisdom test” (and then administering the same memory test) leads to better performance by older adults. So, the next time you start to worry about forgetting a world capital or a famous actor’s name and wonder what this means about your brain and your memory, try not to sweat it.

Note: The research covered here involves mostly healthy older adults who report memory changes in older age. However, if you experience more frequent and concerning memory problems, you should consider consulting a neurologist.

Answers to trivia questions: giraffe; Wrigley’s chewing gum; New Zealand.

Excerpted with permission from the new book Better With Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging by Alan D. Castel PhD. © 2019 Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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Top 10 Pieces of Advice for Beginner Thru-Hikers

Water weighs a lot, audiobooks weigh nothing, and more semi-philosophical tips to guide rookie trekkers to a strong finish

Every afternoon near the start of my first thru-hike, I knew just where I’d find the hiker named Poncho—and that he’d greet me with advice that would help me finish the Appalachian Trail.

A few years earlier, Poncho, a fifty-something auto mechanic from Boston, had found his real home (and that nickname) on the Appalachian Trail. He had fallen in love with the path’s subtle majesty and social fabric. Early each spring, he’d return to Georgia to start his annual pilgrimage up through the other side of his home state, Massachusetts, en route to the trail’s northern endpoint. Poncho had become something of an idiosyncratic guru in the process, an intriguing hiker who would slip out of shelters long before dawn and stop in the midafternoon 20 miles up trail to build a fire and rest for the following day’s long walk.

A compact and wiry man with an exquisite salt-and-pepper beard, Poncho seemed to glow when he talked about the Appalachian Trail, proselytizing on its virtues like he’d unlocked the meaning of life. Whenever I lumbered into camp, hours after his arrival, he’d be warming his toes and drying his reptilian five-toed shoes by the fire. He always offered friendly words of welcome: “Hey kid, you got what it takes,” he once yelled, his Boston accent scuffed by a longtime love of Black & Mild cigars—the first thing he’d seek out in every trail town. “Now you just gotta learn to tolerate it!”

But Poncho had more than motivational mantras. He would tell my fledging trail family of thru-hikers about learning to carry only enough water to make it to the next stop, or figuring out how much food to tote to avoid the dreaded “hanger.” He taught us about good hostels and great restaurants, difficult sections and daily routines. What’s more, his lessons tacitly acknowledged that long-distance hiking was an endless educational process, so it was OK if we rookies didn’t have all the answers—we had plenty of time and miles to discover them.

Poncho eventually sped ahead, churning out 30-mile days while we were still inching toward 25. But I would occasionally spot a five-toed footprint in the mud, certain it was his. (He’s still the only hiker I’ve ever met who swore by the things.) I continued following Poncho’s toes north, trusting that I was indeed learning to tolerate it.

I’m still no expert in thru-hiking, and I’m not sure such a thing exists. Nevertheless, I’ve combined a bit of Poncho’s wisdom, a bit of my own, and much I’ve acquired from other trekkers into ten pointers that, if you’re new to thru-hiking this year, may help you along your way. You got what it takes, kid.

Tips for Beginner Thru-Hikers to Nail Your First Trail

1. Buy a Buff. Get creative with how you use it.

Since the benchmark for backpacking gear holds that every item you carry should have at least two uses, the humble Buff—that is, the ubiquitous brand of the common neck gaiter—is worth its weight in gold. Cold? Put it over your face, and let your nose and mouth warm you. Hot? Wrap it around your neck to shield sun and wick sweat. If you’re willing to get creative, it can function as underwear, a bra, a pillowcase, a camp towel, a rag, a mask, a wound wrap, and a dozen other things.

2. Always swim. You’ll never regret it.

During any long hike, as in life, you will make endless choices, and each decision will bend your metaphorical and literal paths in unquantifiable ways. So don’t let regret become part of your thru-hiking. Perhaps the only moments I regret from every thru-hike are the instances when I decided not to swim. From the glacial lakes of the High Sierra to the natural springs of sunny Florida, swimming during long hikes is a chance to pause and enjoy being present in nature without the weight of walking. I think about my dips in Virginia creeks or raging California rivers often. But I also remember times when I decided against it, for fear of not making milage goals, or being wet and chafed, or encountering snakes swimming in my vicinity. I would take them all back if I could. If you are thru-hiking, you are grinding, and you also stink; take this moment for yourself, and get in the water already.

3. Listen to audiobooks. Physical books are heavy.

The paperback edition of the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic life chronicle, My Struggle, weighs 14 ounces. Like an absolute idiot, I carried that tome during my first thru-hike, finished it, and had a family member dispatch the fourth volume (which weighs even more) to a trailside post office. Then a fellow hiker told me about Libby, an app I could link to with my library card for free audiobooks. Sans paper book, my pack weighed nearly a pound less. I realize the notion of walking silently through woods by day and curling up fireside with a book by night is romantic; I also know that, given the exhaustion of thru-hiking, it’s nearly impossible to do. You will spend plenty of time with your own thoughts on trail as is, so give yourself a mental break from yourself by spending some time listening to a great writer’s thoughts instead. Whatever you hear will make your banter with fellow hikers better too.

4. Hide some cash from yourself.

Sure, it’s totally possible to budget a thru-hike in advance and stick to your financial script. But it’s much more common to overshoot your budget. Thru-hikes are thrilling in part because they are continual highlight reels of the unexpected, but that can mean unexpected expenses, from broken hiking poles to a desperate hotel stop in awful weather. I’ve seen several fellow hikers’ trips end when their money ran out on the trail. Set your budget, then add another 20 percent. Give that surplus to a trusted friend or family member, and ask them to send it only if you really need it. Best-case scenario? You reach your terminus and come home to a financial cushion.

5. Don’t judge other thru-hikers by first impressions.

Maybe you think, as I first did, that thru-hiking involves a quiet communion with nature, void of the masses. Ha! If you start a popular trail at a busy time, the vibe will be more spring break than social fast, and you’ll meet dozens of new people every day. Don’t trust every first impression you get—I initially scoffed at fellow travelers who soon became (and remain) some of my very best friends, a process that’s taught me to be more open off-trail, too. And remember: you’re all walking along the same squiggly line for months, so the person you alienate today might be the person from whom you need help tomorrow. Don’t be an ass, even though the trail will inevitably make you cranky.

6. Think about your water consumption, a lot.

You’ll hear this axiom a thousand times on trail—one liter of water weighs two pounds, so carry it judiciously. But a liter of water actually weighs about 2.2 pounds (or four more ounces, the weight of two full-size candy bars), meaning it’s critical to be wise about the water you haul. The more you minimize the water you carry, the more you minimize the strain on your body, making it that much easier to walk across a country. Your goal should be to arrive at the next water source with a swallow left—no more, no less. The prospect of dehydration is real, but water reports or interactive digital maps like FarOut will show you refill opportunities ahead. Learn to ride that line, and your days will only get better. (Also, filtering water is a pain in the ass, but so is giardia.)

7. Make your own trail mix.

Since you’re not going on a day hike where store-bought trail mix is readily available, and because you’re essentially behaving like a professional athlete by working out all day, make your own. Buy an enormous, durable freezer bag and refill it with the salty things you love at each resupply, changing the blend as you go. My recent trail-mix formula included salt-and-vinegar pistachios, Corn Nuts, chickpea puffs, and that almighty thru-hiking staple with a love song all to its own: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Stuff a smaller bag full of sweets into your hipbelt pocket for bursts of sugary energy as you walk. You’ll save money and perhaps enjoy eating it more.

8. Try new foods, even if no one else will.

Some hikers thrive on eating the same tried-and-true foods every day without fail. They know how much tuna, ramen, and tortillas cost and weigh and how each food tastes and feels in the belly, and these hikers don’t want to risk the consequences of failed experiments. With all due deference, that’s nonsense. There’s going to be enough monotony in your life, whether it’s the green tunnel of the Appalachian Trail or the sage bushes of the desert. Pick up one or two new things at every resupply, even if it’s just a different dehydrated food packet, and you’ll have a little diversion waiting for you at every meal. Skip the Dollar General, too, and go to whatever mom-and-pop shop you can find. Try regional candies and chips—Tennessee wins with the former, Pennsylvania the latter. Try different brands’ takes on the same item. And if the food is awful, ketchup fixes everything. (Never leave town without condiment packets, the culinary Band-Aids of distance hiking.)

9. Get curious about where you are.

I suppose it is possible to walk from Georgia to Maine or from Mexico to Canada and think only about the placement of your feet and nothing else. But that seems like a pretty boring way to exist, especially when you’re exploring new territory that can teach you so much. Google the national forest where you’re living for the next few nights or the tiny town that has a great hostel. Learn in real time. Harpers Ferry isn’t just where you get your picture taken at the “emotional midway point” of the Appalachian Trail—it’s one of the most crucial crucibles of American history (and not only because of John Brown’s raid), so read the National Park System signs. The Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina isn’t just a place to get a burger and shower before climbing into the Smokies—it was a tragic hub of the Trail of Tears, another national sin with which we’ve barely reckoned. A thru-hike is a rare chance to walk through history, so take the time to immerse yourself in it.

10. You can do this. It’s fine if you decide you don’t want to do this, too.

There will be days when you want to quit, when you are certain you are wasting six months of your life on a selfish, stupid, stinking journey that is only making you miserable. There will be days when you ache, and you are certain that hiking could break your body. I have been there, and I will return soon enough. I know it can suck, but keep going. Thru-hiking requires few special skills or spectacular athletic abilities, but it requires surfeits of toughness, gumption, and grit. If you don’t have them now, you will by the time you reach your finish.

Also, don’t forget thru-hiking is your choice. If it’s only making you miserable, stop. That’s OK too. I firmly believe that trekking for extended periods of time is a way to change your mind, life, and body, mostly for the better. But there are other ways to get similar results, so it’s fine if thru-hiking isn’t your route to enlightenment, or whatever. Just walk long enough to know that you’re done, and try, as best as you can, never to look back with regret.

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Seven Tips for Planning a Beach Trip to Gulf Shores Orange Beach

1. Check the calendar

Every trip in our household begins with a check of the calendar, but the research goes far beyond “availability.”

If you’re planning a family getaway, then you’ll need to balance school and extra-curricular activities. Are you still doing virtual school, which allows you to travel during the week when crowds are thinner? Or maybe you’re looking for a date-night escape, and you first need to check when the grandparents can stay with the kids.

While our family usually opts for off-peak travel to save money, you might prefer to plan at the height of the season. This usually means more attractions are open (or open longer hours), and it typically coincides with the seasonal festivals like the Annual National Shrimp Festival or The Hangout Music Festival.

2. Select your accommodations

The right (or wrong) accommodations can make (or break) a vacation, so this is where we spend the bulk of our planning efforts. What’s necessary for one family is not always the right option for another – or even from vacation to vacation.

The first step is to determine what is required, what is desired, and what is the icing on the cake for your current adventure; and then try to match it to your budget.

  • Do you need a full kitchen because you’ll be cooking most meals, or will you be noshing at Brick & Spoon, Hog Wild Beach & BBQ, or other fan favorites for most meals?
  • Do you need a washer and dryer?
  • How close do you want to be to the beach? Is it important to have the beach in your backyard? Is walking across the street ok? What about driving in the car?
  • What is the cancellation policy? In the current environment, you never know what the future holds. Your tolerance for risk should coincide with the cancellation policy.

Whatever your decision, we recommend you book direct through the vacation rental management company. Why? You can leverage the knowledgeable locals who are always happy to assist with area information and can offer quick guidance should anything go wrong. You can usually secure better rates and fewer fees, as well.

3. Pick the right water activities

You’re at the beach – let’s make the most of it.

If your vacation brings you in the warm months, then plan for parasailing, snorkeling and jet-skiing. Visiting during the cooler months? That doesn’t mean you can’t play at the beach. Try sailing, kayaking or offshore fishing.

In addition to letting the temperature dictate our water play, we also try to do something new and exciting with every visit – stretch your comfort zone and explore the possibilities

4. Check out the local attractions

Our family always selects one non-beach day for every three days of vacation; checking out the local attractions is a great way to spend that off-day.

Whether you are exploring The Wharf, heading to the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo, or building your arm strength at Civil Axe Throwing we offer the same advice as above – try something new!

If you’re visiting more than one attraction, also be sure to mix it up. Select one indoor activity and one outdoor activity, or pick one energetic activity and one calming activity.

5. Plan meals for your budget

You’re at the beach friends; you’re going to need snacks. Bring your list for a stop at the grocery store as you head in, and remember your supermarket stop might take longer if you’re stocking a full kitchen. On our last trip at Turquoise Place, we ate most of our meals at restaurants but still saved one evening to enjoy the fantastic balcony grill!

As you’re planning restaurant stops, consider where you are staying, the water activities and planned local attractions – you’ll want to select restaurants near your itinerary options.

For example, plan an oyster lunch at Sea N Suds when you’re visiting Gulf State Park…or dine on the Caribbean eats at Sassy Bass before you head out on the ferry to Dauphin Island.

6. Build a contingency plan

If a rainstorm happens or one of the kids gets a bad sunburn, you can still have an amazing vacation if you plan ahead.

Are the kids are bouncing off the walls? Try the indoor trampoline park, The Factory, or challenge them to a game of laser tag at The Wharf.

If you’ve been bitten by the history bug, take a field trip to the City of Foley Museum Archives where you can enjoy the model train, or to the Orange Beach Indian & Sea Museum where you can still soak up some ocean antiquity (and it’s free!)

7. Go with the flow

My final word of advice? Be willing to ditch the plan.

A decade or two from now, when the kids are remembering all their fond times in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach…packing a suitcase for their own children, and calling you – the grandparents – to tell you they are on the way to pick you up for another extended getaway…they won’t remember that you didn’t stick to the plan.

They will remember that you walked out to the pier with them and watched the dolphins for a long time. They will remember that you built a gigantic sandcastle and decorated it with shells. They’ll remember the time you went twice on The Wharf Ferris wheel, or when you posed together for silly-face photos in front of the sign at Flora-Bama.

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Six Important Tips To Remember While Going Out On Vacation

It’s a good idea to put Electronics, Medications, Toothbrush, and an Extra Pair of Underwear in Your Carry-on A couple of significant things ought to consistently go in a lightweight suitcase. A bathing suit is likewise a smart thought on the off chance that you are going on a seashore excursion. You can purchase the vast majority of these things if your package gets lost, however having them in your portable will set aside your cash and time if your baggage becomes mixed up in travel.

Always ask before jumping on to any form of public transport It’s a smart thought to get some information about the cost before you jump on a transport or other types of open transportation.

Hydration is key while flying Remaining hydrated particularly on whole deal flights makes it simpler to get over jet lag. Minimize the risk of getting sick 30,000 feet up in the air and stay hydrated.

Never Forget To Put Your Room Number and Hotel Address in Your Phone Always a key thing to remember. The entire trip might go to waste if you don’t remember where you booked rooms.

Ask The Locals Who knows about the local scene better than the locals?! It’s pretty much a solid choice to be asking the locals about the local scene like the food, places to go for sightseeing, etc.

Be careful with Free Public WIFI One thing people tend to forget while on vacation is they are constantly under the threat of cybercrimes. It’s generally not a good idea to be logging into free public WiFis.

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