What causes age-related memory loss?
- The hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of memories, often deteriorates with age.
- Growth factors—hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth—decline with age.
- Older people often experience decreased blood flow to the brain, which can impair memory and lead to changes in cognitive skills.
- Older people are less efficient at absorbing brain-enhancing nutrients.
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.
Memory lapses can be frustrating, but most of the time they aren’t cause for concern. Age-related memory changes are not the same thing as dementia.
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.
Memory loss is not an inevitable part of the aging process
The brain is capable of producing new brain cells at any age, so significant memory loss is not an inevitable result of aging. But just as it is with muscle strength, you have to use it or lose it. Your lifestyle, health habits, and daily activities have a huge impact on the health of your brain. Whatever your age, there are many ways you can improve your cognitive skills, prevent memory loss, and protect your grey matter.
Furthermore, many mental abilities are largely unaffected by normal aging, such as:
- Your ability to do the things you’ve always done and continue to do often
- The wisdom and knowledge you’ve acquired from life experience
- Your innate common sense
- Your ability to form reasonable arguments and judgments
For most people, occasional lapses in memory are a normal part of the aging process, not a warning sign of serious mental deterioration or the onset of dementia.
Normal age-related forgetfulness
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 blocking one memory with a similar one, such as calling a grandson by your son’s name.
- Occasionally forgetting an appointment.
- Having trouble remembering what you’ve just read, or the details of a conversation.
- Walking into a room and forgetting why you entered.
- Becoming easily distracted.
- Not quite being able to retrieve information you have “on the tip of your tongue.”
Does your memory loss affect your ability to function?
The primary difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that the former isn’t disabling. The memory lapses have little impact on your daily performance and ability to do what you want to do.
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, or another disorder that causes dementia, or a condition that mimics dementia.
Normal age-related memory changes
Symptoms that may indicate dementia
Able to function independently and pursue normal activities, despite occasional memory lapses
Difficulty performing simple tasks (paying bills, dressing appropriately, washing up); forgetting how to do things you’ve done many times
Able to recall and describe incidents of forgetfulness
Unable to recall or describe specific instances where memory loss caused problems
May pause to remember directions, but doesn’t get lost in familiar places
Gets lost or disoriented even in familiar places; unable to follow directions
Occasional difficulty finding the right word, but no trouble holding a conversation
Words are frequently forgotten, misused, or garbled; Repeats phrases and stories in same conversation
Judgment and decision-making ability the same as always
Trouble making choices; May show poor judgment or behave in socially inappropriate ways
If you or a loved one is experiencing any signs of a more serious memory problem, it’s important to see a doctor to root out the cause.
It’s important to be aware of ways that your health, environment, and lifestyle may contribute to memory loss. Sometimes, even what looks like significant memory loss can be caused by treatable conditions and reversible external factors.
- Side effects of medication. Many prescribed and over-the-counter drugs or combinations of drugs can cause cognitive problems and memory loss as a side effect. This is especially common in older adults because they break down and absorb medication more slowly. Common medications that affect memory and brain function include sleeping pills, antihistamines, blood pressure and arthritis medication, antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and painkillers.
- Depression. Depression can mimic the signs of memory loss, making it hard for you to concentrate, stay organized, remember things, and get stuff done. Depression is a common problem in older adults—especially if you’re less social and active than you used to be or you’ve recently experienced a number of important losses or major life changes (retirement, a serious medical diagnosis, the loss of a loved one, moving out of your home).
- Vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 protects neurons and is vital to healthy brain functioning. In fact, a lack of B12 can cause permanent damage to the brain. Older people have a slower nutritional absorption rate, which can make it difficult for you to get the B12 your mind and body need. If you smoke or drink, you may be at particular risk. If you address a vitamin B12 deficiency early, you can reverse the associated memory problems. Treatment is available in the form of a monthly injection.
- 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. Thyroid problems can cause memory problems such as forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. Medication can reverse the symptoms.
- Alcohol abuse. Excessive alcohol intake is toxic to brain cells, and alcohol abuse leads to memory loss. Over time, alcohol abuse may also increase the risk of dementia. Because of the damaging effects of excessive drinking, experts advise limiting your daily intake to just 1-2 drinks.
- Dehydration. Older adults are particularly susceptible to dehydration. Severe dehydration can cause confusion, drowsiness, memory loss, and other symptoms that look like dementia. It’s important to stay hydrated (aim for 6-8 drinks per day). Be particularly vigilant if you take diuretics or laxatives or suffer from diabetes, high blood sugar, or diarrhea.
The same practices that contribute to healthy aging and physical vitality also contribute to healthy memory.
- Exercise regularly. Regular exercise boosts brain growth factors and encourages the development of new brain cells. Exercise also reduces the risk for disorders that lead to memory loss, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Exercise also makes a huge difference in managing stress and alleviating anxiety and depression—all of which leads to a healthier brain.
- Stay social. 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 activities that challenge the mind, and it helps ward off stress and depression. So join a book club, reconnect with old friends, or visit the local senior center. Being with other people will help keep you sharp!
- Watch what you eat. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and drink green tea as these foods contain antioxidants in abundance, which can keep your brain cells from “rusting.” Foods rich in omega-3 fats (such as salmon, tuna, trout, walnuts, and flaxseed) are particularly good for your brain and memory. Eating too many calories, though, can increase your risk of developing memory loss or cognitive impairment. Also avoid saturated and trans fats, which can help your cholesterol levels and reduce your risk of stroke.
- Manage stress. Cortisol, the stress hormone, damages the brain over time and can lead to memory problems. But even before that happens, stress causes memory difficulties in the moment. When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to suffer memory lapses and have trouble learning and concentrating.
- Get plenty of sleep. Sleep is necessary for memory consolidation, the process of forming and storing new memories so you can retrieve them later. Sleep deprivation also reduces the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus and causes problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making. It can even lead to depression—another memory killer.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking heightens the risk of vascular disorders that can cause stroke and constrict arteries that deliver oxygen to the brain.
Walking: An easy way to fight memory loss
New research indicates that walking six miles to nine miles every week can prevent brain shrinkage and memory loss. According to the American Academy of Neurology, older adults who walked between 6 and 9 miles per week had more gray matter in their brains nine years after the start of the study than people who didn't walk as much. Researchers say that those who walked the most cut their risk of developing memory loss in half.
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. Try to find brain exercises that you find enjoyable. The more pleasurable an activity is to you, the more powerful its effect will be on your brain. You can make some activities more enjoyable by appealing to your senses—by playing music during the exercise, for example, or lighting a scented candle, or rewarding yourself after you’ve finished.
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.
- Try 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, a musical instrument, a foreign language.
- Take a course in an unfamiliar subject that interests you. The more interested and engaged your brain, the more likely you’ll be to continue learning and the greater the benefits you’ll experience.
- Take on a project that involves design and planning, such as a new garden, a quilt, or a koi pond.
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.
Tips to Help You Remember
|To keep track of dates, schedules, tasks, phone numbers|
|To remember where you put things|
|To stay on top of times and places|
|To learn new information|
When to see a doctor for memory loss
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
- whether 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 also ask you or your partner to keep track of your symptoms and check back in a few months.
Further evaluation of memory function
If your memory problem needs more evaluation, your doctor may send you to a neuropsychologist, who will provide you with 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. These are currently the most sensitive tools 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 that work by protecting acetylcholine, a brain chemical that facilitates memory and learning.
Resources & References
Memory Loss: Protecting Your Mind and Coping with Concerns (PDF) includes tips to help keep your mind sharp as you age: (Pri-Med Patient Education Center, Harvard Medical School)
Mild Cognitive Impairment – Description of Mild Cognitive Impairment, how it differs from dementia, and how it can be diagnosed and handled. (University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center)
Tips for improving memory
Mental fitness – exercises for the brain – Describes a complete “mental workout” — daily exercises for the brain. (bellydoc.com)
Nutrition and memory
Folate May Help Forestall Forgetfulness – Summarizes research on how folate improves mental function and reduces memory loss. (US Department of Agriculture)
Omega-3 Fatty Acids Improve Cognitive Function (commercial site) – Report on how fish oils, specifically DHA, help prevent memory loss. (Life Enhancement)
Other resources about memory loss and aging
Confusion, Memory Loss and Altered Alertness – Q & A about memory loss, what to do if you're worried about losing your memory, and what to expect as you grow older. (University of Michigan Health System)
Understanding Memory Loss (PDF) – Uses case-study examples to show different degrees and causes of forgetfulness and other lapses in cognition, with advice for diagnosis and ways to compensate for memory loss. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: National Institute on Aging)
Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask for Help – Discusses the distinction between memory lapses and dementia. (National Institute on Aging)
Symptoms of Alzheimer’s – Lists the ten warning signs of Alzheimer's disease and differentiates them from normal, occasional forgetfulness. (Alzheimer's Association)