All the nformation is stored in different parts of your memory. Latest information is stored in recent memory may include what you do this morning. Information stored in the short-term memory may include the name of a person you met moments ago. Information stored in the remote or long-term memory includes things that you stored in your memory years ago, such as memories of childhood.
How does brain change during aging?
When you’re in your 20s, you begin to lose brain cells a few at a time. Your body also starts to make less of the chemicals your brain cells need to work. The older you are, the more these changes can affect your memory.
Aging may affect memory by changing the way the brain stores information and by making it hard er to recall stored information.
Your short-term and remote memories aren’t usually affected by aging. But your recent memory may be affected. For example, you may forget names of people you’ve met today or where you set your keys. These are normal changes.
Things to remember
* Keep lists.
* Follow a routine.
* Make associations (connect things in your mind), such as using landmarks to help you find places.
* Keep a detailed calendar.ging
* Put important items, such as your keys, in the same place every time.
* Repeat names when you meet new people.
* Do things that keep your mind and body busy.
* Run through the ABC’s in your head to help you think of words you’re having trouble remembering. “Hearing” the first letter of a word may jog your memory.
What about when I know a word but can’t recall it?
This is usually just a glitch in your memory. You’ll almost always remember the word with time. This may become more common as you age. It can be very frustrating, but it’s not usually serious.
Other causes of memory problems
Many things other than aging alone can cause memory problems. These include depression, dementia (severe problems with memory and thinking, such as Alzheimer’s disease), side effects of drugs, strokes, head injury and alcoholi
How does Alzheimer’s disease change memory?
Alzheimer’s disease starts by changing the recent memory. At first, a person with Alzheimer’s disease will remember even small details of his or her distant past but not be able to remember recent events or conversations. Over time, the disease affects all parts of the memory
How can I tell if my memory problems are serious?
A memory problem is serious when it affects your daily living. If you sometimes forget names, you’re probably okay. But you may have a more serious problem if you have trouble remembering how to do things you’ve done many times before, getting to a place you’ve been to often, or doing things that requires steps (such as following a recipe).
Another difference between normal memory problems and dementia is that normal memory loss doesn’t get much worse over time. Dementia gets much worse over several months to several years.
It may be hard to figure out on your own if you have a serious problem. Talk to your family doctor about any concerns you have. If your memory problems are caused by a certain medicine you’re taking, your doctor can prescribe another medicine that doesn’t have this side effect. If another condition is causing your memory loss (such as depression), your doctor can help you treat the condition.
Memory problems that aren’t part of normal aging
* Forgetting things much more often than you used to
* Forgetting how to do things you’ve done many times before
* Trouble learning new things
* Repeating phrases or stories in the same conversation
* Trouble making choices or handling money
* Not being able to keep track of what happens each day
How aging normally affects memory
Memory isn’t a single cognitive process, and it isn’t stored in a single area of the brain. It’s classified by time (short-term vs. long-term) and by type (information you have to recall, like the 13 original colonies or a party you attended, and information that becomes part of you, such as how to drive a car or get dressed). Because different areas of the brain govern different activities and sensory functions, the nature of the information you want to remember determines what part of your brain takes it in and stores it.
There are three stages in the process of memory formation and maintenance:
Acquisition New information enters your brain along pathways between neurons (nerve cells) in the appropriate area of the brain. Unless you focus on the information intently, its residence in your brain is fleeting — the old “in one ear, out the other” phenomenon.
Consolidation If you’ve paid attention well enough to encode new information in your brain, the relevant neuronal pathways get a signal from the hippocampus,a primitive structure deep inside the brain, to store the information as long-term memory. This happens more easily if it’s related to something you already know, or if it stimulates an emotional response.
Retrieval When you need to recall information, your brain has to activate the same pattern of nerve cells it used to store it. The more frequently you need the information, the easier it is to retrieve it along healthy nerve cell connections.
Several factors cause aging brains to experience changes in the ability to retain and retrieve memories:
* The hippocampus is especially vulnerable to age-related deterioration, and that can affect how well you retain information.
* There’s a relative loss of neurons with age, which can affect the activity of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and their receptors.
* An older person often experiences decreased blood flow to the brain and processes nutrients that enhance brain activity less efficiently than a younger person.
These physiological changes can cause glitches in brain functions you’ve always taken for granted. You might have trouble remembering details of a movie you saw recently or directions to a new restaurant. It might take you longer to recall names, faces, and locations, even if you’ve seen them before. You might get flustered if you have to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.
Keep in mind, though, that much of what seems like forgetfulness is more of a slowing in the ability to absorb, store, and retrieve new information, not a loss. You can make and recall new long-term memories; the process just takes a little longer.
And many brain functions are largely unaffected by normal aging, such as:
* How to do the things you’ve always done and do often
* The wisdom and knowledge you’ve acquired from life experience
* Your innate common sense
* The ability to form reasonable arguments and judgments
* The ability to learn new skills and make then routine (though it might take longer)
Degrees of memory loss as part of aging
The following types of memory lapses are normal among older adults and generally are not considered warning signs of dementia:
* forgetting where you left things you use regularly, such as glasses or keys
* forgetting names of acquaintances or figures in the news
* occasionally forgetting an appointment
* having trouble remembering what you just read
* walking into a room and forgetting why you entered
* forgetting the details of conversations
* becoming easily distracted
* not quite being able to retrieve information you have “on the tip of your tongue”
* blocking one memory with a similar one, such as calling a grandson by your son’s name
Although most people start to experience memory lapses like these by age 60, they have little impact on daily performance. Later, we’ll look at some ways of improving memory and compensating for memory loss.
Mild cognitive impairment
When the information you forget is no longer trivial and your forgetfulness begins to have consequences — you miss your weekly card game or blank on your daughter’s birthday — your memory loss is beyond that of “normal” memory loss due to aging and may be diagnosed as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The hallmarks of MCI are being unable to remember details of something you saw or read just a few minutes ago and trouble pulling up information you’ve known for a long time.
The memory lapses are similar to those of someone in the earliest stage of Alzheimer’s, and some experts see it as a precursor to Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. People with MCI do develop Alzheimer’s at higher rates than the general population of older adults. But MCI is not the same as Alzheimer’s, nor does everyone with MCI develop Alzheimer’s. Its symptoms stop well short of dementia, and people with MCI manage to accomplish their routine tasks independently, though they may struggle to do so.
Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia
When memory loss becomes so pervasive and severe that it disrupts your work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, you may be experiencing the warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease, another disorder that causes dementia, or a condition that mimics dementia.
Conditions and lifestyle factors that can cause memory loss
The conditions below might cause memory loss or produce dementia-like symptoms, but they are treatable. Be aware of ways that your environment and lifestyle might be contributing to your memory loss.
Factors which might cause memory loss or dementia-like symptoms:
Exposure to environmental toxins Substances you come in contact with in your home and workplace can cause memory loss or inability to concentrate. They include:
* lead in drinking water or paint in older homes
* mercury in paints, dyes and inks
* carbon monoxide leaking from home heaters
* chemicals in pesticides and hobby materials
Medications Many prescribed and over-the-counter drugs or combinations of drugs can interfere with neurotransmitters essential to memory or simply make you drowsy.
Alcohol and drug abuse Excessive alcohol intake is toxic to brain cells, and illicit drugs such as marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine block the function of neurotransmitters needed for memory.
Depression Especially in the elderly, persistent depression may actually cause a loss of neurons in brain areas responsible for memory, making depressed people less able to concentrate and process information.
Vitamin B12 deficiency B12 protects neurons, and some older persons develop an inability to absorb it effectively.
Thyroid problems The thyroid gland controls metabolism: if your metabolism is too fast, you may feel confused, and if it’s too slow, you can feel sluggish and depressed.
Hearing loss If you can’t hear what people are saying, you can’t remember it!
When to see a doctor
It’s time to consult a doctor when memory lapses become frequent enough or sufficiently noticeable to concern you or a family member. If you get to that point, make an appointment to talk with your primary physician and have a thorough physical examination. The doctor will ask you a lot of question about your memory, including
* how long you or others have noticed a problem with your memory
* what kinds of things have been difficult to remember
* whether the difficulty came on gradually or suddenly
* if you’re having trouble doing ordinary things.
The doctor also will want to know what medications you’re taking, how you’ve been eating and sleeping, whether you’ve been depressed or stressed lately, and other questions about what’s been happening in your life. Chances are the doctor will ask you or your partner to keep track of your symptoms and check back in a few months.
If your memory problem needs more evaluation, your doctor may send you to a neuropsychologist, who will have you take some pencil-and-paper tests that gauge different aspects of mental ability. If those tests show abnormal results, the doctor will try to rule out causes of cognitive dysfunction based on conditions such as vascular disease, psychological problems, eating and drinking habits, and environmental factors.
A problematic showing on mental ability tests means you’ll probably go in for imaging studies of the brain, such as a CT or MRI scan, which can detect anything putting pressure on your brain, and, if that’s normal, a SPECT or PET scan, which track blood flow and metabolic activity in the brain, respectively, and are the most sensitive tools at present for revealing brain abnormalities.
If you are diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimer’s disease, you may benefit from one of the medications which work by protecting acetylcholine, a brain chemical that facilitates memory and learning.
Compensating for memory loss
Even if you are experiencing a troublesome level of memory loss, there are many things you can do to learn new information and retain it.
Keeping track of dates, schedules, tasks, phone numbers Write it down!
* Leave yourself notes or make checklists.
* Put appointments and important dates on calendars and in a day planner or electronic organizer.
* Ditto for phone numbers and other contact information.
* If you have trouble remembering how to do something, write down the steps.
Remembering where you put things
* Put the things you use regularly (keys, glasses, purse, watch) in the same spot when you’re not using them.
* If you have to put something down in a different place, look at the place when you put down the object and say the location out loud.
* If necessary, write down where things are.
Staying on top of times and places
* Set an alarm clock or timer to remind you when to leave for an appointment or do something in your home.
* Use a map to help you get from one place to another.
* Enlist friends and relatives to remind you of where you need to be and things you’re supposed to do.
Learning new information Work on your ability to focus your attention and screen out distractions:
* Listen closely when someone talks to you.
* Repeat back the information.
* Try to talk with people in quiet places.
* Focus on one thing at a time.
Preventing memory loss
The same practices that contribute to healthy aging also contribute to healthy memory.
* It gets more oxygen to your brain.
* It reduces the risk for disorders that lead to memory loss, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
* It may enhance the effects of helpful brain chemicals and protect brain cells.
Healthy diet featuring fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and “healthy” fats
* Antioxidants literally keep your brain cells from “rusting.”
* B vitamins protect neurons and help reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases.
* Avoiding saturated fats and trans fats helps cholesterol levels and reduces risk of stroke.
* Cortisol, the stress hormone, can damage the hippocampus if stress is unrelieved.
* Stress makes it difficult to concentrate.
Good sleep and enough of it
* Sleep is necessary for memory consolidation.
* Sleep disorders like insomnia and sleep apnea leave you tired and unable to concentrate during the day.
* Smoking heightens the risk of vascular disorders that can cause stroke and constrict arteries that deliver oxygen to the brain.
In addition, two other lifestyle factors are crucial for maintaining healthy memory throughout life:
Lifelong learning and exercise of the brain
When it comes to memory, it’s “use it or lose it.” Just as physical exercise can make and keep your body stronger, mental exercise can make your brain work better and lower the risk of mental decline. Here are some ideas for brain exercise, from light workouts to heavy lifting:
* Play games that involve strategy, like chess or bridge, and word games like Scrabble.
* Work crossword and other word puzzles, or number puzzles such as Sudoku.
* Read newspapers, magazines, and books that challenge you.
* Get in the habit of learning new things: games, recipes, driving routes.
* Take a course in an unfamiliar subject.
* Take on a project that involves design and planning: a new garden, a quilt, a koi pond.
Developing and maintaining social relationships
People who don’t have social contact with family and friends are at higher risk for memory problems than people who have strong social ties. Social interaction helps brain function in several ways: it often involves activity that challenges the mind, and it helps ward off stress and depression. So join a book club, reconnect with old friends, visit the local senior center. Being with other people will help keep you sharp!