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Memory and Aging: What’s True and What’s Not

When it comes to our memory as we age, many of us may feel undue anxiety that our memory will fail us and we shall be relegated to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, not knowing who, when or where we are at any given moment.

Relax.

While it is true that our memory faculties change as we age, it does not mean that we lose our memory altogether. Yes, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are very real possibilities for the aged, but statistically, only fewer than 1 in 5 adults 65+ years old and fewer than one-half of adults 85+ years old have Alzheimer’s disease. Truth: most older adults do not get Alzheimer’s.

So, what happens to our memory as we age? To understand the outward behavioral changes as we climb age brackets, we first have to peek inward and look at how the brain changes as we grow older.

Brain Change Over Time

Our brains change over time. As we age, the brain tends to work differently, making memory retrieval more difficult – but not impossible. Truth: many of these changes in brain function are normal. It is important to know what is normal versus changes that may require medical attention.

The brain’s volume usually peaks in the early 20’s and gradually declines over the rest of your life. When you reach your 40’s, you may notice subtle changes in your ability to remember new names or multitask. This is normal behavior caused by shrinking in your brain’s cortex.

Also, blood flow to the brain decreases as we age. Most of this drop in blood flow affects the frontal cortex, resulting in a decrease in our ability to find the words we want to use (called verbal fluency). And, the aging person has to work harder at planning and organizing activities (called executive function).

Neuroimaging and psychological tests have shown that the brain does not lose memories or the ability to reason. Older minds still seem to efficiently acquire new information and park it in long-term memory. It just becomes harder to retrieve memories and process information due to changes in nerve cells and the connections between them.

Now that we have examined the inner workings of the brain as we age, let’s take a look at what happens to memory next.

Memory Change Over Time

Human memory is a number of different storage and retrieval processes, not a single faculty. Truth: not all of the storage and retrieval processes decline as we age.

Some of the memory processes that may decline the most as we age:

  • Episodic – episodic memory is the memory of the events that we have experienced. Remembering what you had for breakfast or where you parked your car in the grocery store parking lot are examples of episodic memory. Our ability to recall episodic memory voluntarily declines, but the involuntary episodic memory (memories that are triggered to recall) remains intact.
  • Source – source memory is our ability to remember where we learned about something. Example: where did I find that new recipe or learn about that new car?
  • Flashbulb – flashbulb memory is our ability to remember where we were when something happened. Example: where were you when the space shuttle exploded or where were you on September 11, 2001, when the planes hit the Trade Towers?

Memory processes, which decline the least, include:

  • Semantic – semantic memory is our ability to store and retrieve words, facts, and concepts. As we accumulate more information along the journey of our lives, the semantic memory will actually increase.
  • Procedural – procedural memory is our ability to recall how to do things, like dancing, riding a bike, driving a car, or swimming. Procedural memory tends to stay intact as we age.

As we age, distractions make it more difficult for us to encode memories. Many researchers theorize that older adults are more careful about accuracy than younger people and are therefore more apt to slow down and respond in a more measured way. This bent towards accuracy also has the older person processing more peripheral information and other information not related to the task at hand. This peripheral information can interfere with or block accurate memory encoding.

So, what can you do to transition into a new way of living with changing memory processes?

Changing Your Behavior to Compensate for Memory Changes

The first change you should make to compensate for changes in your memory is to relax. Do not compare yourself to people half your age – younger brains and older brains do not function in the same way. This will just add stress and anxiety to your already taxed brain. If you must compare your memory processes to a group of people, be sure it is a group of your peers. Truth: your memory processes change, not necessarily decline.

Part of relaxing about the changes in your memory processes is to not fight the change. Work with it. Write to-do lists and organize your living space to be more memory-friendly (like leaving your keys by the door, etc). Use memory devices like mnemonics, visualization, or routines.

Research has shown that challenging yourself by learning a new language or playing a musical instrument may decrease or prevent altogether memory problems or the development of dementia. Stay mentally active. Learn new subjects, play brain games, complete puzzles, or volunteer for a favorite cause.

Finally, get regular aerobic exercise into your routine. Research has found that aerobic exercises aids in cognition and brain health. Getting more oxygen to the brain will aid in memory retrieval processes. A healthy lifestyle will increase brain health.

Memory processes change as we age – truth. That we will decline into memory oblivion – lie. Work with your memory retrieval processes, adjust your lifestyle, and you can remain sharp to a very ripe, old age.