Memories as Medicine: how looking back at your life can help preserve your future memory

One way to protect your memory in the future is to recall memories from the past, but it’s not for the reason you might think. While talking about past experiences gives your mind a workout, it’s actually the effect it has on your mood that can reduce your risk for cognitive decline.

Low mood and Alzheimer’s risk

Numerous studies have shown a link between depression in later life and cognitive decline. In fact, adults over 50 with depression have 65% higher odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Tackling feelings of dejection and desolation is important for your current sense of wellbeing, but it’s also a way you can reduce your risk of cognitive decline in the future.

When we think about treating depression, cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressants are often the remedies that come to mind. But Reminiscence or Life Review Therapy, is a less well-known, evidence-based therapy that can have excellent results.

Life Review Therapy

Sustained reflection on our lives is something we rarely do, but looking back at past events can help you make sense of your experiences and understand their meaning in the context of your life history.

Life Review Therapy involves asking people to recall events from the past. A therapist might ask a patient to describe their earliest memory and what it means to them, or ask them to recall where they were the day JFK was shot. The effect on mood can be significant. A meta-analysis of life review therapy in older adults with depression has shown therapeutic effects comparable to those of pharmacotherapy and other psychological interventions.

While the science focuses on older adults, there are many reasons to believe that intentional review of your life can benefit younger and middle-aged adults. It’s helpful to understand how your past experiences influence the person you are in your day-to-day life.

Life Review for Alzheimer’s Patients

Interestingly, Life Review is a tool that’s also used with people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Carers of a loved one with dementia are often encouraged to look at old photographs or describe events of their shared history. In this case, recalling childhood memories can help patients exercise their memory muscles and create a sense of connection with loved ones.

Staying engaged

While Life Review as a therapy requires a clinical setting, our digital age means we can bring the tools for intentional life review to a much wider audience. I’m really excited about the potential of asking people to reflect on life experiences and recall memories in safe spaces on social media. We know that staying socially engaged also plays a big role in staving off cognitive decline and that many older adults struggle with loneliness. One of the things Neurotrack offers users is a private Facebook group where I pose Life Review questions to members. We’ve created a safe space where people share stories and connect around their shared passion for better memory health.   

Tackling depression is a critical part of preventing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. And it may well be that taking time to remember the past holds the key to protecting our minds in the future.

Nick Bott, Psy.D.
Nick Bott, Psy.D.

Neuropsychology Fellow, Stanford School of Medicine — For over a decade, neuropsychologist, Nick Bott, has been researching age-related cognitive decline and prevention strategies. He wants to reshape the accessibility and affordability of cognitive healthcare.