Ageing and memory loss, what is normal?
Although new neurons develop throughout our lives, our brains reach their maximum size during our early twenties and then begin to very slowly decline in volume. Blood flow to the brain also decreases over time. The good news is that many studies have shown that throughout life the brain remains capable of re-growth and of learning and of retaining new facts and skills. This is especially the case for people who practice regular exercise in addition to frequent intellectual stimulation. Although there are tremendous differences among individuals, some cognitive abilities continue to improve well into old age, some constantly although some decline.
Some types of memory improve or remain the same. A type of memory called “semantic memory” continues to improve for many older adults. Semantic memory is the ability to recall concepts and general facts that are not related to specific experiences. For example, understanding the concept that clocks are used to tell time is a simple example of semantic memory. This type of memory also includes vocabulary and knowledge of language. In addition, “procedural memory” – how to perform various functions such as how to tell time by reading the numbers on a clock – remains the same.
Some types of memory decline somewhat. Do you sometimes arrive at the grocery store and have trouble remembering what you actually came for? Do you occasionally have trouble remembering where in the parking lot you parked your car? Or do you have difficulty remembering appointments such as what time you’re supposed to meet your neighbour for coffee? “Episodic memory”, which captures the ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ of our daily lives, is to blame. Both episodic and longer term memory decline somewhat over time.
Certain medical conditions can cause serious memory loss. These complaints should disappear once the medical condition is treated. Some of the medical conditions that may cause memory loss are: anxiety, dehydration and poor nutrition, depression, infections, medication, psychological stress, substance abuse or thyroid imbalance.
It is important to discuss these and other possible causes of memory loss with your doctor and to have a complete medical check-up. A neuropsychologist should also be consulted for a complete neuropsychological evaluation. The object is to rule out anxiety and depression, or other psychological stress and also to test for cognitive changes.
Tips for maintaining a good memory
Here is some good news concerning our ageing brains. Scientists have identified ways to minimise age-related changes and improve everyday memory function. Here are some of their tips:
Socialise. Participation in social and community activities improves mood and memory function.
Get moving! Physical activity and exercise, such a daily brisk walk, helps to boost and maintain brain function.
Train your brain. Using mnemonic strategies to remember names improves learning and memory (mnemonics are tricks and techniques for remembering information that is difficult to recall: an example is the mnemonic “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain” to remember the order of the colours of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet).
Don’t buy into ageist stereotypes about memory decline. Studies have shown that having positive thoughts on ageing can improve memory performance in older adults.
It’s difficult to gain knowledge if you can’t see or hear well! Make sure you wear your prescription glasses or hearing aid, if you have them. And have your eyes and hearing tested regularly.
Keep a sense of control and confidence in your memory. Don’t assume that little memory lapses mean you have dementia. Use memory aids to gain and maintain confidence.
Avoid distractions that divert your attention. Distractions can range from trying to do several things at once to loud noises in the background. Even your thoughts can distract your attention. For example, if you’re preoccupied with a stressful job or home environment and you’re not paying attention when your friend gives you directions to her new home, you will not be able to recall how to get there.
Here is an important and last tip: Normal memory problems do not affect your everyday living. If you forget where you put your keys, you probably just need to get better organised. However, if you forget what keys are used for or how to unlock doors, you should see a neuropsychologist for a complete assessment and/or speak with your family doctor.
This article has been supplied by the team of neuropsychologists of the HPA Health Group. Cognition and memory specialised consultations available at the Hospital Particular do Algarve. For information call 707 28 28 28.