Age-Related Memory Loss
Has This Ever Happened To You?
- The car keys go missing
- You can’t retrieve a once-familiar name or you’ve forgotten a phone number
- You walk into a room with a purpose and then forget why?
In many ways, our memories shape who we are. They make up our internal biographies…the stories we tell ourselves about what we’ve done with our lives. They tell us who we’re connected to, who we’ve touched during our lives, and who has touched us. In short, our memories are crucial to the essence of who we are as human beings.
Age-related memory loss, then, can represent a loss of self. It also affects the practical side of life. Forgetting how to get from your house to the grocery store, how to do everyday tasks, or how you are connected to family members, friends, and other people can mean your ability to live independently. It is therefore no surprise then that declining thinking and memory skills rank among the top fears people have as they age.
We know that the ability to remember can fade with age. Many of these changes are normal, and not a sign of dementia. In fact, sometimes what people experience as a memory problem is really a “not-paying-attention” problem.
When I am introduced to several people at one time, inwardly I feel that there is no way that I can retain all of the names. Thus, I don’t try. Memory is made up of a lot of different pieces, stored in different parts of the brain. As an example, you’re leaving home to go to a friend’s home. When you were to shut your front door and lock it, your brain registers (1) your pull on the door, (2) the door shutting, (3) your locking of the door, (4) and finally what you did next. When you’re paying attention to all of these components, it helps you remember that you shut and locked your front door. When you’re not, you may wonder if you remembered to lock it.
Statistically only about 10% of the population develop dementia at some point in their lives. The possibility does increase with age and is common in very elderly individuals. However it is not a normal part of the aging process.
What is common as people age is that the speed at which information can be retrieved on demand is slowed. Through most of our life, we had a wonderful gift. Information was retrieved instantly. As we age we may lose a word that will be retained again, only not as quickly as when we were young. There are many causes for memory lapses. Here is a partial list:
- An aging brain – The hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of memories, often deteriorates with age. Hormones and proteins that once protected and repaired brain cells and stimulated neural growth also decline with age. And older people often experience decreased blood flow to the brain. Each of these phenomena can impair memory.
- Stress – when you’re stressed, you’re not as able to focus on what you’re doing. If you’re not concentrating on an experience, such as laying your keys on a table, you’ll never retrieve the information you need in your memory storage. Stress distracts your attention from what you’re doing. Instead it focusing on problems and concerns swirling around in your mind.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency – Vitamin B12 protects neurons and is vital to healthy brain functioning. Lack of it can cause permanent damage to the brain.
- Thyroid problems – The thyroid gland controls metabolism: If your metabolism is too fast you may feel confused. If it’s too slow you can feel sluggish and depressed.
- Dehydration – Older adults are very susceptible to dehydration. Severe dehydration can cause confusion, drowsiness, memory loss and other symptoms that look like dementia.
- Lack of sleep – when you are sleep-deprived, you don’t remember things as well as when you are well-rested. If your life is on a hectic pace, you may not be getting enough sleep. A proven way to improve your memory is literally, “to sleep on it.” Experiments have shown that people who sleep after learning new information remember more eight, or even 24 hours later than those who don’t.
- Depression – People who are depressed often mimic the symptoms of people who have dementia, in terms of memory loss. However, their memory loss is not of the progressive nature that occurs in people with dementia. When the underlying depression is treated, their memory returns.
- Medications – Many medications that aging adults take for chronic health conditions can interfere with their memory. These often interact in ways that cause people to feel depressed, sleepy and anxious. The problem with taking many medications is a serious one that affects many adults who see multiple medical professionals.
There are things that can be changed up to a point. For example, we may need the medicine prescribed, even though a side effect may slow down the brain. Conscientious health professionals, including pharmacists try to avoid giving you medications that can have this effect on you.
The primary difference between age-related memory loss and dementia is that the former is not disabling. The memory lapses have little impact on your daily performance and ability to do what you want to do. Dementia, on the other hand, is marked by a persistent, disabling decline in two or more intellectual abilities such as memory, language, judgment and abstract thinking.
Remember, only approximately 10% of our population ever experience dementia. Most of us experience normal, age-related memory loss.