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Retirement Living at its Bestâ„¢

Memory & Aging

by Toni Rowley, RNC
Reprinted with permission from Adult Care Resource Magazine

Memory is one of our most important capacities. Without memory, every day would be a completely new day. You would not remember how to communicate or care for yourself. You would not know how to go to the grocery store, prepare a meal, or any of the numerous small tasks that make up our day.

Alzheimer's or Merely Forgetfulness?

The fourth leading cause of death in older adults is Alzheimer's disease. The onset of this disorder is marked by minor memory lapses. All of us experience minor memory lapses such as forgetting an appointment, or the plot of a book, or a movie. Eventually those with Alzheimer's are unable to store new information in their memory. Ultimately, they cannot retain or recall longstanding information, such as who their spouse or children are. In later stages, personality and the ability to function independently are affected.

There are basic tests that determine memory loss. Many older people score as well as younger people. But a theory held by many is that memory declines with age. Many older people have given up on trying to learn anything new because "old people cannot learn or remember things." Aging leads to biological deterioration and this interferes with storage and retrieval of memories.

The Biological Basis of Memory Loss

Neurons process information. These neurons conduct electrical signals that regulate our breathing, create perceptual experiences, and create our emotions, memories, and thoughts. They create who we are. It was once believed that neuron loss came with natural aging. Senile plaques, or clumps of dead neurons are highly prevalent in brains with Alzheimer's, but are not characteristics of people who are aging normally. It is now thought that typical age-related decline in brain weight is moderate in nature.

Aging causes structural and functional changes in neurons rather than neuron loss. Examples are:

  1. General shrinking of neurons

  2. Loss of fatty cells around the neurons

  3. Reduction in connections among neurons (important for learning memory)

  4. Decrease in neurotransmitters (They allow communication among neurons.)

  5. Reduced blood flow to the brain

There is not a clear relationship between brain pathology and intellectual functioning. Research shows that some people with brain injury or disease are capable of remarkable intellectual feats. There is some evidence that the brain can grow new neurons even in older adulthood.

Is Memory Loss Inevitable With Aging?

Another explanation for age-related memory decline is the assumption in American society that it is inevitable that we will lose memory as we age. It is such a widespread assumption that any sign of forgetful-ness is met with the comment "Oh, it must be Alzheimer's!" Forgetfulness is the subject matter of many a joke. This self-fulfilling prophesy leads "older" adults to "give up" and not put forth the effort in a learning situation. It is actually the failure to actively process information as opposed to a biological decline in ability to store information that causes the decline in memory. For example, during our school years we would "study" something we needed to learn. What "appears" to be memory loss, may really be failure to "study" the relevant material.

In a study comparing attitudes of different cultures about older adults, the "negative" stereotypes came from Americans who could hear, as opposed to those who were deaf. Very positive comments such as "friendly," "wise" and "kind" came from the deaf and cultures such as the Chinese who revere their elderly. Older "hearing" Americans were as negative as younger American adults concerning the elderly population in general.

For whatever reason, memory declines as we age, but it is clear that there are steps that can be taken to enhance brain function. What one believes about their memory will influence one's ability to remember. Those who believe their memory can improve score significantly higher on memory tasks than those who were told their memory could not be improved.

Eight Recommendations for Fighting Forgetfulness

  1. Believe you have a good memory. Stop telling yourself that you are forgetful or else forgetfulness will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. Relax and retrace. Don't let the frustration of misplacing something get the best of you. Stress only makes your memory less effective. Take some deep breaths, relax, and then retrace your steps, picturing in your mind when you last had the item in your hand. To prevent losing items, try to keep keys, wallets, and similar items in the same place and repeat to yourself the item and the place.

  3. Take mental pictures. Pay active attention to your surroundings. This comes in handy when parking a car or finding a building. Picture in your mind reference points that will assist in finding your way back to your point of origin.

  4. Write it down (for instance, use post-it notes). Writing things down makes it easier for your brain to process larger amounts of information. Alternatives can be leaving yourself auditory messages on the answering machine, writing on a calendar, keeping a diary, or sending yourself an e-mail.

  5. Use an organizer. Write down account numbers, PIN numbers, passwords, etc. Use medicine boxes, files, any tool to keep information organized and easier to locate and remember.

  6. Practice. Work on absorbing and retaining information. Try to memorize phone numbers for example. The more you revert to looking some things up, the lazier your brain becomes at retrieval.

  7. Recite aloud information or ideas that you want to remember. Saying something out loud transfers material into long term memory.

  8. Take a brain break. Oxygen and glucose nourish the brain to keep memory sharp. When overtired and stressed, the body produces a build-up of cortisol, a hormone. Chronically elevated cortisol is like poison to the nervous system because it blocks oxygen and glucose to the brain. Relaxation promotes nourishment to the brain that increases memory. Another useful agent, aromatherapy, can be very helpful in promoting relaxation, calm, and mild sedation. Three very effective and common essential oils are lavender, vanilla, and orange which can be found at various health-food stores. There are many vitamins, herbs, and amino acids that enhance brain function.

For more information on brain function and memory, the following three books contain helpful, up-to-date material: