Brain ‘Clutter’: What It Is and How It Can Impact Memory as You Age

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  • Researchers say one reason older adults sometimes have trouble remembering things is that there is an abundance of memories and information to sift through.
  • Experts say this brain “clutter” is not all bad. This extra data can help with decision making creativity.
  • They add that exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy diet, and staying socially active can help with memory as you age.

Most people past a certain age know the feeling.

You’ve worked on many projects with Susan. Your desks are across the room from one another. You’ve even picked up coffee for her more than once and can remember her order.

But her last name?

You search your brain and just – in that moment — cannot find it.

You scold yourself and wonder: Am I losing my memory?

research review published on Feb. 11 theorizes that this kind of difficulty – along with other memory challenges as we age – may be a result of too much information, not a lack of it.

In other words, as we age, we may have an overload of data and memories to shuffle through to find that one piece we desire.

Tarek Amer, the lead researcher on the study and a postdoctoral fellow in cognitive neuroscience at Columbia University in New York and Harvard University in Massachusetts, says the findings challenge some past assumptions about aging, the brain, and memory.

“This goes against the idea that the older brain does not store as much. That it’s impoverished,” he told Healthline.

What memory lapses really mean

Amer and his team looked at research that compared memory storage between younger adults and older adults from 60 to 85 years of age.

That research examined creative tasks to see what people recalled and forgot.

It found that older adults held onto information and lacked the ability to ignore much of it.

So, Amer said, given the notion of someone trying to recall Susan’s last name, he said, “You have five or more people named Susan (stored in your memory),” so you have to go through all that to find the correct one.

He calls that process “interference.”

It could also be thought of as a big walk-in closet where you’ve piled sweaters and other clothes for years. You know you put your favorite blue sweater in there, but finding it takes time.

Thomas Laudate, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist at Tufts Medical Center in Massachusetts, described the concept of older adults’ brains having added information to cull through like a photo with “too many pixels.”

He told Healthline that this theory – he does not see it as proof yet – possibly opens the door to more information on how the brain works as we age and what we can do about that.

“It helps give us more information about the underpinning of memories,” Laudate said. “It would be interesting (to explore) if there are ways these theories can be applied to enhance memory.”

Dr. Glen R. Finney, a fellow of the American Academy of Neurology, said the findings are not surprising.

“This is something that I have thought of for quite a while,” he told Healthline.

Several years ago, Finney said, a study showed college students pictures of famous people and timed how long it took them to name the famous person. The students were asked how many people they knew with various first names (including the first names of the famous people).

“The more people that they knew with the same first name as the famous person, the slower they were to retrieve that name,” he said.

“This implies that the more you know, the longer it takes to find the specific information you are looking for, which makes sense,” Finney noted. “I like to think of it as the price we pay for accumulating wisdom over the years and decades that we live.”

Can ‘clutter’ be good?

Can we clean up our brains to work better around this? And should we?

Amer said that as researchers dig deeper, they may also find that that excess information can be a good thing, too.

“This is where some emerging evidence shows that this might be helpful,” he said. “Sometimes information not retrieved in one (effort) could be useful in another.”

Finney, for one, sees good in the clutter.

“Not all clutter is bad,” he said. “The more information you have, the more grist for the mill of creativity, and sometimes that clutter can lead to novel ideas and thoughts.”

“We want to focus on the idea that this is not always bad,” said Amer.

Older participants tend to fare better creatively, he said, because of things they had “encoded in their memory” to use.

He said more work needs to be done to link this to actions that may help with memory in older age.

What to do for now

If you’re still trying to remember Susan’s last name, you’re not alone.

And while experts say it’s too soon to draw actionable things from this latest study, there are ways to work on keeping your brain working well.

Laudate suggests:

  • Regular aerobic exercise. It does not, he said, have to be hard core; any kind of regular aerobic movement helps. “If the benefits of exercise could bet put in a pill, it would sell millions,” he said.
  • Eat a nutrient-dense, balanced diet.
  • Stay intellectually and socially active. “Those can often be done together,” he said. Book groups, film discussions, or whatever interests you.

You can also work on your memory itself, Finney said.

“One interesting factor that we need to understand better is the value of forgetting or unlearning information previously acquired so that more useful practices or information can rise to the forefront for use,” he said.

“So far, the best ways we know to do this is to focus on using and learning the better activities and information, and not using or practicing less useful clutter,” he added.

Finney is also a believer in meditation.

“I think there still needs to be further research to really tell best practices for keeping the brain less cluttered, but one possible avenue might be practicing meditation, which can help quiet the mind and also help with focusing on deliberate attention,” he said.

What won’t work?

“You hear about these supplements on TV,” Laudate said. “As far as we can tell, they are not particularly helpful. And they’re very expensive.”

If you feel strongly about supplements, he said, see your primary care physician, ask them if you have any vitamin deficiencies, and let them guide you in what to add to your routine.

Originally published on Healthline February 15, 2022. Fact checked by Jennifer Chesak. Republished with permission.

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