Last updated on April 12, 2021
There is a lot of talk about age and memory. It’s true that there is a lot of research that points to the fact memory tend to decline as we age, but there is not as much talk about why that may be.
This report aims to first outline factors that contribute to memory loss or decline as we age.
Next, this report aims to assess how those factors specifically are linked to memory loss and decline via the use of studies and analysis of other reports and research on the matter.
Finally, this report will outline strategies and methods of protecting the memory from decline as we age.
Brain Changes That Occur With Age
A key to understanding why the memory changes with age is to understand how the brain changes as we age. Imaging and research show that as we age, some areas of the brain shrink in size. The hippocampus, one of these areas, loses 5 percent of its nerve cells with each passing decade — for a total loss of 20 percent by the time you reach your 80s (Mohs,2007). Additionally, the myelin sheath surrounding and protecting nerve fibers begins to wear down.
This slows the speed of communication between existing neurons. Not only that but some of the receptors on the surface of neurons begin not to function as well as they previously did in our youth, thus this inhibits the ability of the neurons to communicate effectively between one another (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019). Hormones and proteins responsible for protecting and repairing brain cells and stimulating neural growth also see a decline with age.
These physical changes in the brain impact the ability of the brain to encode or store new information into the memory and impair the ability to retrieve information that is already stored.
Decreased blood flow to the brain that older people tend to experience also impairs memory and leads to declines in cognitive abilities (Smith, Robinson, & Robert, 2019).
There is also research that shows other possible physiological changes within the body that may contribute to age-related memory decline.
Some such changes include age-related changes in adrenal and gestational hormone levels, changes in cerebrovascular supply, and accrual of oxidative stress. There may also be a genetic component that contributes to age-related memory decline.
Two studies showed a link between genes and cognition, to include memory function.
The studies seemed to show that in some people age increased the vulnerability of certain areas of the brain, such as the hippocampus. Those who possessed the “vulnerability” gene were therefore at a greater risk of forming lesions on the hippocampus as they aged. This group of people would then be more likely to experience memory decline as they age (Small, 2001).
Types Of Memory Decline That Occur With Age
Episodic memory refers to those memories pertaining to events in your life. These memories recount personal experiences that contain information about what happened, where it happened, and when it happened. Research by Daselaar and Cabeza found that episodic memory performance was significantly impaired amongst the aged group as compared to the young group.
Their study results also showed impairment in working memory performance among those in the aged group. Ultimately, they concluded that an increase in age resulted in a decline of episodic memory (Daselaar and Cabeza, 2013).
Working memory refers to the information you are immediately aware of. Essentially, it is the information in the process of being committed to our memory.
The capacity of the working memory is limited, with evidence suggesting that only 3-5 pieces of information can be housed in the working memory at one time (Neurological terms beginning with W, n.d.).
Working memory is largely responsible for our ability to comprehend what we read, hear, and see as well as the way we go about planning and organizing ourselves.
Studies of brain activity in older adults have noted reduced working memory which leads to more effort being put into focus during the process of encoding as a means of compensating for a reduced ability to hold information. Ultimately, the reduced working memory of older adults equated to a greater storage of distractor information, because of an inability to filter out insignificant information (About memory, n.d.)
Long-term memory refers to the part of the memory responsible for storing information for a prolonged period of time. Long-term memory loss is when you have trouble recalling this information when you need it.
In 2013, it was estimated that 16 to 20% of adults over 60 had some form of long-term memory impairment (Roberts & Knopman, 2013).
Signs Of Age-Related Memory Decline
There are signs and symptoms of memory loss and decline that are normal to experience with age. On the other hand, there are more disruptive signs and symptoms that may be indicative of a more serious condition such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Mild cognitive impairment is a normal sign of age. Mild cognitive impairment or MCI is a condition whereby individuals have more memory or cognitive problems than others their age.
MCI tends not to interfere with a person’s ability to care for themselves or participate in normal activities. Signs of MCI might include misplacing items, having trouble remembering a piece of information, or forgetting an important event or appointment.
Signs Of MCI
Some common signs and symptoms of mild cognitive impairment can include (Homes, 2019):
- Losing a common item (i.e. keys)
- Forgetting the name of a new acquaintance
- Trouble finding the right word to use when speaking
- Difficulty driving to a new location
- Forgetting the day or date
Alzheimer’s And Dementia
Aging is the largest risk factor for many brain diseases that impact the structure and function of the brain, namely Alzheimer’s and Dementia. When Alzheimer’s or Dementia sets in, they cause abnormal proteins to group together and form plaques within the brain that severely damage brain tissue.
Additionally, Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia seem to target the hippocampal formation of the brain during its early phases (Small, 2001). This results in symptoms and behaviors that have a more significant and detrimental impact on a person’s ability to live a normal life.
Signs Of Alzheimer’s Disease
Some common signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s and/or Dementia can include:
- Difficulty performing simple tasks (paying bills, dressing appropriately, washing up)
- Forgetting how to do things you’ve done many times
- Getting lost or disoriented even in familiar places
- Inability to follow directions
- Words that are frequently forgotten, misused, or garbled
- Repeating phrases and stories in the same conversation
- Trouble making choices
- Showing poor judgment or behaving in socially inappropriate ways
Combating Memory Loss
While there is no way to completely prevent the memory from being impacted by aging, there are steps that can be taken to keep the mind strong, alert, and functioning at its prime.
Studies have shown that many of the memory problems experienced by older people can be lessened – or even reversed. Studies of nursing-home populations show that patients were able to make significant improvements in memory when given rewards and challenges (Mohs, 2007).
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, seeds, and olive oils might be one of the best things for the aging brain. These foods, which fall into the Mediterranean diet category, are rich in many vitamins and nutrients that positively impact the brain and memory.
One study found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet were 20% less likely to have cognitive and memory problems (WebMD, n.d.). Berries, a key element of Mediterranean diets, specifically have been noted for their links to improved memory because they are rich in flavonoids.
Researchers at Harvard Brigham and Women’s Hospital found in a 2012 study published in Annals of Neurology that women who ate two or more servings of blueberries and strawberries each week delayed memory decline by up to two-and-a-half years (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019). A separate study found that nuts specifically strengthened brainwave frequencies linked to cognition, memory, learning, healing, and other pertinent brain functions (Berk et. al., 2017). A 2015 UCLA study looked specifically at walnuts and found that higher walnut intake improved cognitive test scores (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
- Ginkgo biloba: This supplement is shown to increase brain circulation which offers memory-enhancing effects (Stuart, 2008)
- Omega-3 fish oil supplements have piqued great interest. Studies suggest that a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids from foods such as cold-water fish, plant and nut oils, and English walnuts are strongly linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s. However, thorough studies comparing omega-3s to placebo are needed to prove this memory benefit from supplements (Stuart, 2008).
- Acetyl-L-carnitine. Some studies suggest that this amino acid might help Alzheimer’s patients with memory problems. It may provide a greater benefit to people with early-onset and a fast rate of the disease (Stuart, 2008).
Director of the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University, Scott Turner, notes that physical exercise has the best evidence of preserving memory and mental function as we age.
Numerous studies show that physical exercise increased the volume in the parts of the brain that control memory and thinking. Evidence also suggests that prolonged exercise over a period of at least six months leads to an increase in the volume of other brain regions (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019). Some studies suggest that physical activity also triggers a release of the protein BDNF which promotes healthy nerve cells in the brain, therefore boosting memory. (Watson, 2014).
There is additional research that shows physical exercise has indirect impacts on the brain by boosting mood, reducing stress, and improving sleep.
Since deficits in these areas can negatively affect the brain as we age, it can be inferred that these indirect positive impacts benefit the brain and subsequently memory (Harvard Health Publishing, 2019).
To boost the effectiveness of our memory and prevent forgetfulness we need to keep our minds active. It is important to engage in activities that challenge your brain on a regular basis. According to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, certain memory training exercises can increase “fluid intelligence,” the ability to reason, problem-solving, and retention (Roth, n.d.).
Activities like crossword puzzles and word searches work to strengthen the brain by activating the parts of the brain related to processing and memory, among others.
Regularly adding these activities to your routine, even if it’s just 5 minutes a day can boost processing speed, enhance attention, and increase positive intellectual engagement (Ahuja, 2017).
A study in the journal Current Biology found that fast-paced video games also work to improve memory, reaction times and processing (Roth, n.d.). Additionally, as we age, these sorts of activities help to improve our memory and decrease our risk of getting dementia or Alzheimer’s disease which severely decreases memory function.
Reading is another activity that can be quite beneficial for working memory. Ongoing research at Haskins Laboratories for the Science of the Spoken and Written Word notes that reading boosts our brain activity.
As the brain stops, thinks, processes, and imagines the narrative, brain functions such as visual and auditory processing, phonemic awareness, fluency, and comprehension are activated. The stimulation of these areas in the brain boosts our ability to recall and remember details and information (The Oprah Magazine, n.d.).
Evidence from animal studies suggests that stimulating the brain via stimulating activities can stop cells from shrinking and can even increase brain size in some cases. Studies show that rats living in enriched environments with lots of toys and challenges have larger outer brains with larger, healthier brain cells.
And animals given lots of mental exercises have more dendrites, which allow their cells to communicate with each other. Research has shown that, in our later years, a stimulating environment encourages the growth of these dendrites, while a dull environment impedes it (Mohs, 2007).
Research published in the American Journal of Public Health shows that smokers over the age of 40 have a much faster rate of memory loss than non-smokers. Dr. Marcus Richards and his colleagues at the University College in London studied the effects of smoking on memory loss of over 5,000 people.
Participants were shown 15 words for two seconds each and were then asked to write down as many words as they could remember. In another test for speed and concentration, participants had to take a page full of letters and cross out as many Ps and Ws as they could find in one minute.
The researchers found that cigarette smokers in their 40s and 50s had much lower scores on these memory and concentration tests compared with non-smokers and the scores were even lower for those people who smoked the most cigarettes a day, showing a definite relationship between memory loss and increased smoking (Greene, n.d.).
Indirect impacts of smoking can still negatively impact memory. Dr. Richards and his colleagues suspect that high blood pressure, a common side effect of smoking, may also cause brain damage, early signs of dementia and subsequent memory loss.
Another possibility is that toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke could also be the cause of direct damage to the brain (Greene, n.d.). By cutting smoking one can protect themselves from indirect impacts of smoking that would negatively impact memory.
A meta-analysis of 113 stress studies provided ample evidence to support the notion that stress negatively impacts memory. One of the findings was that stress impeded the formation of memories when presented prior to or during the encoding process.
Another finding was that stress led to exhaustion which contributed to cognitive impairment, problems with attention, and declines in working memory (Shields et.al., n.d.). Another study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry examined the effects of stress over time on memory.
The study included 61 cognitively normal subjects and 41 with mild cognitive impairment. Fifty-two participants were followed for up to 3 years and received repeated stress and cognitive assessments.
Results of the study revealed that chronic stress affected cognitive functioning, with cortisol having neurotoxic effects overtime (Peavey et.al., 2009). The meta-analysis also supported this finding by showing that increased cortisol levels were linked to decreased memory and cognitive functioning (Shields et.al., n.d.).
Thus, managing stress is an essential part of maintaining a healthy memory. Meditation is a great strategy for managing stress, thereby minimizing the chances of stress negatively affecting memory.
There is evidence that shows a connection between meditation and improved memory. One study looked at a method of meditation that pairs saying a mantra/chant with repetitive motion of the fingers, known as Kirtan Kriya. The study found that this practice improved the ability of the participants to perform memory-related tasks (Khalsa, 2015). An investigation of 12 studies that looked at meditation’s impact on brain health also found that there were several meditation styles that led to improved memory and increased attention and mental clarity (Gard et. al., 2014).
A study published in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging looked at the brains of 16 people who had never previously meditated and then reexamined their brains after the completion of an 8-week meditation program whereby participants spent 27 minutes on average each day practicing mindful meditation (Ahuja, 2017).
When researchers examined the brains of the participants after the 8-week mediation program period, they found that there was an increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area of the brain linked to learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection.
Being social can have indirect impacts on the brain. Socialization significantly decreases the risk of depression linked to isolation and loneliness, and depression can have a significant major impact on memory.
Research has shown that depression and short-term memory loss are linked, as well as generalized anxiety disorder and longer memory gaps. WebMD has also reported that depression and anxiety are linked to sleep interruptions which exacerbate memory problems that may already exist.
A Brigham Young University study extensively investigated the impact of depression on memory. Almost 100 adults were tested and the study found that the higher a person’s level of depression, the lower the score the obtained-on memory and cognitive task (Kirby, 2019). Researchers theorized that when someone suffers from depression, they experience higher levels of memory interference than they would if they were not depressed.
Extensive research also demonstrates various ways that anxiety and memory loss are linked, and studies show that people with generalized anxiety and/or panic disorders have greater difficulty remembering experiences from their childhood than their non-anxious counterparts.
It is theorized that acute stress can disrupt the process of collecting memories (Retta, 2019). Thus, by being social and decreasing depression risks, the brain and memory are protected from the harmful impacts of depression.
Embark On Something New
The Alzheimer’s Association published research that shows that keeping your brain active increases its vitality and memory. Doing new things in new ways appears to help retain brain cells and connections. It may even produce new brain cells (Roth, n.d.).
The challenge of learning a new language provides a massive opportunity for your memory to be strengthened. Research out of the University of Edinburgh revealed that learning two or more foreign languages, even if those languages are learned in adulthood, could correlate to the slowing of cognitive decline associated with getting older (Bak et. al., 2014).
In the same way that learning a new language poses a unique challenge that actually strengthens the brain, learning to play an instrument offers a similar challenge and similar benefits.
Research suggests that learning to play a musical instrument contributes to improved brain development, stimulation of existing tracts in the brain, and the establishment of new neural networks (Nichols, n.d.).
Additionally, The Journal of Neuroscience published a study that looked at the protective effects that playing music has on the mind. The study found that when music is played on an instrument, the waves in our brains rapidly moves in a manner that improves listening and hearing skills.
Such movement worked to demonstrate the ability of the brain to rewire itself when faced with disease or injury which could limit a person’s ability to perform tasks (Ross et. al., 2017). Thus, learning to play an instrument can help the brain strengthen itself to fight against detrimental brain diseases like Alzheimer’s or Dementia that would limit cognitive functioning and impair memory.
Aging is not something we should fear. Rather, we should embrace aging armed with the knowledge we need in order to thrive in old age. By understanding how the brain changes as we age, we can take preventative measures that will keep our memories sharp and keep us functioning at optimal levels, rather than taking reactive measures that likely won’t be as beneficial. By incorporating certain practices and items into our lives we can protect our minds and memories and age gracefully.
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