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Use It or Lose It: 
Maintain Your Competitive Edge As You Age

By Roger Seip

“I have short-term memory loss, though I like to think of it as presidential eligibility.” – Paula Poundstone

If you believe that accelerated loss of your mental acuity is inevitable with age, and that the loss of your competitive edge is certain to accompany that memory loss, you’re not alone. But you are wrong. Age does have some effect on memory, but it’s not an especially significant factor. Nonetheless, people tend to use their age as an excuse for poor or weakened performance. In fact, the opposite is true: For most people in business, the prime earning years are their 40s and 50s because they have invaluable maturity and experience. However, sometimes people in middle age enter a very self-defeating cycle, doubting themselves and losing confidence in their abilities.

Be Like Mike…With Your Brain: No matter what your age, developing or training the memory is, in many ways, like playing a sport. Consider basketball: Although certain individuals are undoubtedly genetically more gifted ballplayers – they’re 7 feet tall, extremely strong, very fast, and have great hand-eye coordination – anyone can learn to play basketball reasonably well, with training and a lot of practice, even if you’re 5’2” and not much of a jumper.

People commonly misperceive memory as a talent, not a skill. While some people do possess the genetic gift of a brain wired for superior recall, the truth is that everybody can make major improvements in their memory function with training and practice regardless of age, education, IQ, or any other factor. You’re not going to be a superstar professional athlete without some God-given talent, but most people, when it comes to using their brains, don’t need to be superstars; they just want to lead productive lives. And that is definitely achievable.

Older Really Can Mean Wiser: Age is a factor in training your physical body, and it’s no different when training your brain. Although few people can run a mile faster at age 40 than they could at age 20, if you’re motivated and committed, you can still run a pretty darn fast mile at age 40. Your results will be quicker and more dramatic when you’re younger, but a very inspiring key difference between athletic training and brain training is that while you can’t get stronger, faster, and more coordinated as you get older, it’s totally realistic to expect to continue to grow wiser – more effective mentally – in later years.

Wiser is fine, but doesn’t everyone inevitably get more forgetful when they age? Yes, hormonal changes as we age do have some impact on our memories, but people tend to blow this factor way out of proportion and make it way more of an issue than it really is. In most cases, you’re actually not more forgetful than you ever were; you just notice more when you are forgetful.

You know the phenomenon where you walk into a room and then you can’t remember what you walked into the room for? That’s known as ‘walking into the hereafter.’ Because you walk in and you think, “Now what was I here after!?” You don’t walk into the hereafter any more now than you did when you were seventeen, but you’re more aware of it now when you do. Why? For one thing, you hear doctors say, “Vigilantly watch for short term memory loss, because if it starts happening more, you may need a check-up for Alzheimer’s.” We’re hyper-aware, therefore, of every time we have a “hereafter” moment, and this fearful mindset about getting Alzheimer’s disease in turn makes us notice even more every time it happens.

The other reason you may feel more forgetful, even though you’re not, comes from the power of negative thinking. Many people create a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy in which they subconsciously create their own forgetfulness, actually starting to forget more because they believe aging will make them forget more often.

Six Steps to Sharpen Mental Function: As with sports, having a good memory is a matter of conditioning, commitment, and positive thinking. When you realize that you create the notions that your mental faculties decrease and you grow less effective as you age, then you have the power to change that idea. Once you’ve accepted that, you can keep your brain in top shape as you age by taking the following steps:

  • Remember: forgetting is no big deal: Because the language you use has been proven to become your reality, choose positive self-talk. You can convince yourself that anything is possible just as easily as you can talk yourself into believing that something is impossible when it’s really not. Don’t use language that makes a catastrophe of something that’s really not a big deal. When you lose your keys for five minutes, for example, don’t tell yourself, “Oh my God! I obviously have Alzheimer’s!” when really you just lost your keys, a meaningless and common phenomenon you’d not have thought twice about a few years before.

  • Maintain a positive attitude…within reason: Zig Ziglar has famously said that a positive attitude will not help you do anything that you want to do. A positive attitude will not magically transform the talentless into superstars, nor will it make basketball great Shaquille O’Neal into a good horse jockey. But a positive attitude will help you do everything better than a negative attitude will.

  • Make little changes for a big difference: Remove the words “forget” and “forgot” from your vocabulary. Instead of saying, “I forgot her name,” try saying, “I can’t recall her name right now.” It may sound like a silly little change, but you’re actually re-training your brain. When you say, “I forgot,” your brain processes, “Oh, I’m old and getting stupider by the second.” But when you say, “I can’t recall,” you cut yourself and your brain some slack, making it much easier to recall the information later. This perception change will have an immediate effect on your ability to recall the information you’re seeking.

  • Manage your stress in the moment: Stress is the number one killer of your recall. If you can’t immediately remember something, don’t freak out. Just take a deep breath and think positively that eventually you will remember. Tell yourself, “I know this. It will come to me.”

  • Exercise your brain and body: Research shows that a combination of mental and physical activities can protect your memory and help keep you alert. Overall physical health will translate into overall mental health, better memory, and sharper mental faculties all around. Exercise maintains heart health and opens blood vessels; in turn, brain cells get the nutrients that ensure peak performance. Exercise your brain, too, by doing crossword puzzles, solving brain teasers or playing Sudoku. Mental games and exercises have been proven to have a definite effect on mental agility as people age. Reading good, challenging books that make you think is also an essential mental exercise to stay sharp. Also get sufficient sleep and take a vacation every once in awhile.

  • Train your brain: Exercising a muscle means you’re using it, but not pushing it beyond its limits. Training involves going beyond where you’ve ever gone before. To train a bicep to be stronger, for example, you have to lift a weight that’s heavier than one you’ve lifted before, or you lift it more times than you previously have. You must push it beyond its current limits. It’s the same with your brain; you must continuously challenge your brain by learning new things. It doesn’t really matter what you learn: cooking, a foreign language, history – anything so long as it’s new.

With the Brain, It’s No Pain, No Gain: While it may be uncomfortable at times – just as when you’re training your body to be stronger – you must choose the pain of discipline over comfort if you want to maintain a competitive edge. Growing pains aren’t nearly as bad as losing out to your competition or feelings of decrepitude, uselessness, or regret. If you can endure a little bit of pain every day as you take the steps necessary to add mental acuity to the wisdom and experience you’ve acquired with age, you will find that old advertising slogan is true: You’re not getting older. You really are getting better!

Read other articles and learn more about Roger Seip.

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