As people age their memory often declines. But it is not inevitable. Here I discuss the problem, likely causes and suggested strategies to combat it.
Memory often declines with age
There is no doubt that memory generally declines with age. Aging is linked to reductions in memory functions and neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form and reorganise connections).
Many studies have documented poorer memory performance in older people compared with younger age groups. Most researchers agree that memory decline occurs in more than 40% of people over 60.
But the good news is that studies suggest memory decline is not inevitable. Most of us can do something about it.
What memory problems are an expected part of normal aging?
Normal aging can impact learning new information and recalling information. Common memory problems include simple forgetfulness, like misplacing the keys, and becoming slower to recall information such as names and events. The good news is that aging has less impact on our older memories, procedural memory (such as performing tasks) and semantic recall (general knowledge).
What causes memory decline?
Aging associated memory decline is widely understood to be associated with changes in the hippocampus. These are two areas of the brain that have important roles in consolidation of short term memories and in spatial memory. Age dependent changes include the hippocampus losing neurons and size, changes in hormone levels, reductions in brain blood supply and accrual of oxidative stress.
These impacts on the brain are in turn caused by many factors, often treatable and reversible. These include :
- Depression is common in older adults, and interferes with concentration, organisation and getting things done. This can mimic the signs of memory loss, so there are positive impacts on your effective memory from identifying, treating and reducing depression.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency can damage the brain, sometimes permanently. B12 protects neurons and is vital to healthy brain functioning, and age reduces our rate of absorption. Smoking and alcohol increases the risk further. The earlier a deficiency is treated the better the chance to reverse the memory impact.
- Thyroid problems can significantly impact your mind, as the thyroid gland controls metabolism. Medication can often resolve this.
- Excessive alcohol consumption leads to memory loss, and over time may increase the risk of dementia. Experts advise avoiding alcohol or limit your daily intake to 1-2 standard drinks.
- Dehydration is common in older people. Severe dehydration can cause confusion, drowsiness, memory loss, and other symptoms that look like dementia. So stay hydrated – drink around 2 litres of water per day.
What about Alzheimer’s disease or dementia?
Memory loss as we age is not inevitably associated with dementia. However aging is often related to decreased cognitive function and increased risk of brain diseases including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is most common in people over 65, and one of the first area of the brain to suffer damage is the hippocampus. Because of this Alzheimer’s is a major contributor to memory decline in otherwise healthy older people. But the memory loss and thinking problems seen in mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s or other dementia are not normal aging.
Can we keep our memory sharp as we age?
In many cases, yes. Studies suggest that memory decline is not inevitable.
Addressing the factors listed above is a great start. Research also shows that regular exercise can be key to reduce and delay age-related cognitive and memory decline, especially aerobic exercise. Walking at least 10 kilometres a week has also been found to support preventing brain shrinkage and memory loss. Exercise can alleviate aging related structural and functional changes in the brain, reducing the risk of neurodegenerative disease. Exercise also enhances the adult hippocampus neuron production that is critical for memory functions. Read more about it in my blog Exercise and Memory.
Alongside exercise, try to resolve illnesses to reduce their impact on your memory and the effect of any associated medication. Aim for good blood pressure and cholesterol, don’t smoke, avoid excessive alcohol, keep your weight trim, and eat well – focussed on a wide variety of whole plant-based foods with plenty of antioxidants. Reduce stress and get enough sleep. While you are at it, maintain strong social engagements (volunteer, join clubs, party!). Studies show that highly socially engaged older people enjoy better memories, general cognition, health and happiness.
Whew. Sounds hard. But keeping a healthy, social and happy life must be worth it.
But wait, there is more you can do if you’re really keen to keep sharp.
Brain exercises to combat memory loss
Keep your mind exercised as well.
Researchers testing cognitive training in trials have found significant benefits. In one trial, sessions in memory training, reasoning and processing-speed improved participants’ mental skills in those areas and the benefits persisted for two years.
Engage in activities you already enjoy and know. And learn some new skills – maybe start learning a language, master a new cuisine or learn a musical instrument. Foster a growth mindset – new skills and experiences are not just for the young. You are never too old to learn new things and enrich your life.
And by using memory techniques you might surprise yourself at how quickly you can learn.
At any age you can directly improve how quickly you can retain new information by learning and practicing memory skills. This can improve your brain health and directly combat memory decline. Learning a memory technique and practicing it for even 10 minutes a day is a great start.
How can you begin? Check out my blogs on memorising;
- lists of words,
- names and faces,
- other useful stuff,
- speeches and text, and
- movement terminology.
- Also, how to use memory palaces.
Please note the above blog is not medical advice and you should always first consult your medical practitioner regarding your personal circumstances. 😊