Memory loss seems to be a really big deal in the minds of the elderly. So what is normal and what isn’t? Memory lapses aren’t something to worry about as age-related memory changes are not the same thing as dementia. We do experience physiological changes as we grow older, that can cause glitches in the brain function that we have always taken for granted.
Many mental abilities are unaffected by normal aging, such as:
- The 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
- The ability to form reasonable arguments and judgments.
The hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of memories, often deteriorates with age and causes age-related memory loss. Our hormone and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate neural growth will also decline with age. We older people will often experience decreased blood flow to the brain that can impair our memory and lead to changes in cognitive skills.
Some symptoms that may indicate dementia are:
- Difficulty performing simple tasks
- Unable to recall or describe specific instances where memory loss caused problems
- Getting lost or disoriented when in familiar places
- Words are frequently forgotten, misused or garbled (but not if there is no trouble holding a conversation)
- Trouble with making choices or showing poor judgment
An article on WebMD reiterates that mild memory loss is perfectly normal with aging. There’s a whole host of elderly people walking around that misplace their keys, search in confusion for their cars in parking lots and can’t recall names, but that doesn’t mean they are entering into Alzheimer’s territory.
Memory is the ability to normally recall the facts and events of our lives and takes place in three stages:
- Stage 1: Encoding is when a person takes information in.
- Stage 2: Consolidation is when the brain takes the information it encodes and processes it so that it gets stored in certain areas of the brain.
- Stage 3: Retrieval is when a person recalls stored information in the brain.
Memory loss can occur even before we hit our 50’s and some even in their 20’s and 30’s have forgotten a name or an appointment or some fact that was “on the tip of their tongue”. That doesn’t mean they have Alzheimer’s. I always say my mind is like a very full computer hard drive and just takes some time to recall information occasionally.
There are other causes of memory loss like stress, anxiety, ADHD, metabolic diseases, alcoholism, Vitamin B-12 deficiency, infection and drugs. These, thankfully, are reversible. These losses may be normal but they sure are frustrating. The best way to keep your brain fit is to keep using it. The old saying is very true in this instance, “use it or lose it”. Focus your attention, reduce your stress, get that needed sleep and structure your environment.
But, you should see a doctor if memory lapses become frequent enough or sufficiently noticeable to concern you or a family member or get to the point of difficulty of misplacing things often, forgetting those appointments regularly and difficulty in following the flow of a conversation. This could be the beginning of mild cognitive impairment.
-Dr Fredda Branyon