Why Older People Lose Their Memory

Forgetfulness is a common complaint among older adults. You start to talk about a movie you saw recently when you realize you can’t remember the title. You’re giving directions to your house when you suddenly blank on a familiar street name. You find yourself standing in the middle of the kitchen wondering what you went in there for.

As we grow older, we experience physiological changes that can cause glitches in brain functions we’ve always taken for granted. It takes longer to learn and recall information. We’re not as quick as we used to be. In fact, we often mistake this slowing of our mental processes for true memory loss. But in most cases, if we give ourselves time, the information will come to mind.

Losing keys, misplacing a wallet, or forgetting someone’s name are common experiences. But for people nearing or over age 65, such memory lapses can be frightening. They wonder if they have Alzheimer’s disease or another type of dementia. Developing Alzheimer’s is a widespread fear of older adults. 

The good news is that Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of aging. Most older adults don’t get Alzheimer’s! Fewer than 1 in 5 people age 65+ and less than half of those age 85+ have the disease. However, it is important to understand that our brains change over time, and it is helpful to be able to distinguish normal changes from those that require medical and psychological attention. 

Alzheimer’s disease causes large numbers of nerve cells in the brain to die. These changes make it hard for a person to remember things, have clear thinking, and make good judgments. The symptoms begin slowly and get worse over time

Although new neurons develop throughout our lives, our brains reach their maximum size during our early twenties and then begin very slowly to decline in volume. Blood flow to the brain also decreases over time. The good news is that many studies have shown that the brain remains capable of regrowth and of learning and retaining new facts and skills throughout life, especially for people who get regular exercise and frequent intellectual stimulation. Although there are tremendous differences among individuals, some cognitive abilities continue to improve well into older age, some are constant, and some decline. 

To understand what happens on the outside, it's important to know what happens on the inside. The brain's volume peaks in the early 20s and gradually declines for the rest of life. In the 40s, when many people start to notice subtle changes in their ability to remember new names or do more than one thing at a time, the cortex starts to shrink. Other key areas also show modest changes. Neurons (nerve cells) can shrink or atrophy, and there's a large reduction in the extensiveness of connections among neurons (dendritic loss). The normally aging brain has lower blood flow and gets less efficient at recruiting different areas into operations.

As the brain changes, so does behavior. And so, given that blood flow drops the most in the frontal cortex, people most commonly experience declines in verbal fluency, or the ability to find the words they want. They also have to work harder at "executive function," planning and organizing their activities. The areas most affected after that include the parietal cortex, which affects construction and visuomotor performance (practice that golf swing!), and the medial temporal area, which affects the ability to make new long-term memories and think flexibly.

>>Here are some ways to help your memory:
1. Learn a new skill.
2. Volunteer in your community, at a school, or at your place of worship.
3. Spend time with friends and family.
4. Use memory tools such as big calendars, to-do lists, and notes to yourself.
5. Put your wallet or purse, keys, and glasses in the same place each day.
6. Get lots of rest.
7. Exercise and eat well.
8. Don’t drink a lot of alcohol.
9. Get help if you feel depressed for weeks at a time.

Posted by: Lusubilo A. Mwaijengo

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