People tend to forget. We all forget things at time. Mislabeling or misplacing something is not that uncommon of an occurrence. Momentary lapse in memory regarding things is a very normal and human thing. However, as we age, our brains change, and these memory lapses seem to become more frequent.
But is memory loss a normal part of aging?
According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), many older adults worry about their memory, but taking longer to learn new skills and occasionally forgetting details are usually not serious age-related memory loss problems.
So then, what’s the difference between normal, age-related forgetfulness and a serious memory problem? It’s normal to forget things once in a while as we age, but serious memory problems make it hard to do everyday things like driving, using the phone, and finding your way home.
Problems common with age related memory loss
Simple forgetfulness (the “missing keys”) and delay or slowing in recalling names, dates, and events can be part of the normal process of aging. There are multiple memory processes, including learning new information, recalling information, and recognizing familiar information. Each of these processes can get disrupted, leading to the experience of forgetting. There are also different types of memory, each of which can be affected differently by normal aging:
Preserved memory functions
- Remote memory (ability to remember events from years ago)
- Procedural memory (performing tasks)
- Semantic recall (general knowledge)
Declining memory functions
- Learning new information
- Recalling new information (takes longer to learn something new and to recall it)
Other cognitive changes that come with age related memory loss
- Language is modestly affected by normal aging. Language comprehension is typically preserved, as are vocabulary and syntax.
- Trouble remembering names and finding words in conversations are very common and verbal fluency can also be affected.
- While verbal intelligence remains unchanged with aging, the speed of information processing gradually slows.
- Executive functions remain normal for everyday tasks, but are slowed when faced with new tasks or divided attention.
- A slowing of the speed of cognitive processing and reaction time occur with aging.
These problems are all part of the natural aging process and most people are affected with them sooner or later. They, however, do not hamper the ability of a person to live life independently, unless they become very advanced or have some additional factor influencing them.
Although normal brain aging may mean slower processing speeds and more trouble multitasking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise that routine memory, skills, and knowledge are stable and may even improve with age.
Abnormal patterns of memory loss
Memory problems that begins to interfere with normal daily life and activities are not considered normal aging. Forgetting where you put your glasses is a simple sign of forgetfulness, disorganization, or normal aging; however, forgetting what your glasses are used for or that they are worn on your face is not a normal memory problem.
The memory loss and thinking problems seen in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia are not normal aging.
Memory problems in people with mild cognitive impairment
- Forgets recent events, repeats the same questions and the same stories, sometimes forgets the names of close friends and family members, frequently forgets appointments or planned events, forgets conversations, misplaces items often.
- Has trouble coming up with the desired words. Has difficulty understanding written or verbal (spoken to) information.
- Loses focus. Is easily distracted. Needs to write reminders to do things or else will forget.
- May struggle, but can complete complex tasks such as paying bills, taking medications, shopping, cooking, household cleaning, driving.
- Has many important memory impairments but can still function independently.
Memory problems in people with dementia
Has many of the same symptoms of MCI plus as dementia progresses:
- Is unable to perform complex daily tasks (for example, paying bills, taking medications, shopping, driving).
- Loses insight or awareness of memory loss.
- Displays poor judgment.
- Declines in rational thinking and ability to problem solve.
- Memory, language, and cognition become so impaired that self-care tasks can no longer be performed without assistance from another person.
Can memory be preserved during the aging process?
Keeping physically healthy can help protect against memory loss and dementia. The NIA recommends regular aerobic exercise, and a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. In addition, getting the right amount of sleep, socializing, minimizing stress, and keeping health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes under control will help reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
A new study has also highlighted the importance of vitamin D in preserving cognitive function. In this study of postmortem brains, the brains of people with higher cognitive function before death contained higher levels of vitamin D.
Although keeping active and engaged as you age may not prevent dementia, mentally stimulating activities, such as volunteering, reading, playing games, or learning new skills could help lower the risk.
Doing word games, such as crosswords, has long been advocated in the popular press as a means of keeping yourself sharp, but until recently, there has been little evidence in peer-reviewed journals.
Although there is no clear-cut proven link that doing any of the following will help slow memory and thinking skill decline, these are general recommendations for maintaining good health.
- Maintain good blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and blood glucose levels.
- Stop smoking and avoid excess drinking.
- Eat a healthy diet — one high in antioxidants and olive oil — lowers the risk of dementia. Consider the Mediterranean or Dash diets.
- Maintain appropriate weight,
- Reduce stress.
- Get an adequate amount of sleep.
- Exercise your body (include aerobic exercises [exercises that increase your heart rate such as swimming, biking, or walking], strength training, stretching exercises, and balance training).
- Exercise your brain (do puzzles, quizzes, card games, read, learn a new language or play a new instrument, learn a new skill or hobby, take a class).
- Stay socially active (share hobbies with like-minded people, join clubs, volunteer).
NOTE: The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.