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Memory and Aging: Fears, Fallacies and Facts

Losing Brain Function

By Deborah DiGilio, MPH (Director, APA Office on Aging)

Everyone has had the experience of losing their keys, misplacing their wallets, or forgetting someone’s name.  For people nearing or over age 65, such common memory lapses can be frightening. They wonder if they have Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or another type of dementia. Developing Alzheimer’s disease is a widespread fear.

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

What Brain Changes Are Normal for Older Adults?

Although new neurons develop throughout our lifespans our brains reach their maximum size during our early twenties, and from that point, very slowly decline in volume. Blood flow to our brains also decreases over time. However, the good news is that numerous 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. The result is that, while there is tremendous variability among individuals, some cognitive abilities continue to improve well into older age, some are constant, and some decline.

Do you sometimes arrive at the grocery store and have trouble remembering what you are there to get?  Do you occasionally have trouble remembering where you left your car in the parking lot? Decline in episodic memory is to blame. Information processing, learning something new, and multi-tasking also may decrease slightly or slow down as we age.

Normal age-related memory changes do not affect your everyday living. If you forget where you put your keys you probably just need to get better organized.  However, if you forget what keys are used for or how to unlock doors, this is not a normal part of aging and you should speak with your primary health care provider and/or see a psychologist for a complete assessment.  Other tip-offs that a memory problem may require professional attention are forgetting how to handle money or pay bills, not be able to learn new things like operating a microwave, and not recalling the names of loved ones.

Other Possible Causes of Memory Problems

If you or a loved one is having memory problems that are bothersome or worsening, don’t assume that Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia is the culprit.  Glitches in memory can be caused by conditions that are reversible such as anxiety, dehydration, depression, urinary track and other infections, medication side effects (including over-the-counter medications such as antihistamines), poor nutrition, alcohol abuse, and thyroid imbalance.

It is important to discuss these and other possible causes of memory problems with your medical doctor and to have a complete medical work-up. Also, ask to see a psychologist for a complete neuropsychological evaluation to test for cognitive changes and to rule out anxiety, depression, or other psychological stresses.

Tips for Maintaining and Improving Your Memory

Psychologists have identified ways to minimize age-related changes and improve everyday memory function.  Here are some of their tips:

  1. Socialize. Participation in social activities improves mood and mental function.

  2. Keep your mind active. Regular practice can maintain thinking and memory skills.

  3. Get moving! Physical activities and exercise, such as brisk walking, help boost and maintain brain function.

  4. Manage your chronic health conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and depression and do not smoke. These conditions increase your risk for AD. A recent study (Barnes, et al, 2011), found that up to half of AD cases worldwide are attributable to potentially modifiable risk factors such as these.

  5. Don’t buy into ageist stereotypes about memory decline. Studies have shown that having positive beliefs about aging can improve your memory performance.

  6. Put everything in its place. If you always put your reading glasses in the same place, you will always know where they are.

  7. Keep a calendar of important dates. Make sure to check it a couple of times a day.

Learn more:

Dementia Resources for Older Adults and Their Families:

Dementia Resources for Professionals:

This blog post is an adaption of an APA Office on Aging brochure, Memory and Aging written by Elizabeth Vierck.

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