Age-Related Memory Loss: What is Normal?

As people age, some changes in memory are normal. Almost everyone will forget where they put their keys, but if a loved one forgets what a key is, or how to use it, the problem is much more severe.

The brain is a complicated organ and memory is one of the brain’s most complex functions. Memory allows humans to recall a wide range of experiences and information, including names, visual impressions, language, sounds, flavors and so on. The brain integrates these experiences, along with the accompanying emotional tone, into memories. The function of memory includes three components: encoding, storage, and retrieval. A defect in any link in the chain can impair memory.

Memories are held in short-and long-term “storage.” Not everything in short-term memory is also consolidated into long-term memory. Repetition is one factor that increases the chances a memory is transferred to long-term storage.

Frequently Asked Questions:

1. What kinds of memory changes are normal in late middle age?

A: Some categories of memory are more likely than others to become elusive in middle age. The “tip of the tongue” phenomenon, where a certain desired word is just out of reach, is extremely common, and not indicative of a serious memory problem. Remembering names, particularly of new people, is another frequent memory difficulty. Misplacing objects around the house can occur frequently. The difficulty is that these same memory slips can occur in the early stages of dementia, and it is impossible to tell the difference until the disorder progresses.

Not everyone experiences memory slips as they age.

2. What is the difference between normal memory slips and a more serious memory loss?

A: In memory slips, the person can often remember the material eventually. Moreover, the person recalls they had a lapse of memory, whereas in serious memory loss, the person often doesn’t know there was a problem remembering something. If memory slips are the problem, important events like birthdays aren’t forgotten, but with severe memory loss, they are. Severe memory loss results in more pronounced social withdrawal and getting disoriented in familiar territory. Taking the occasional wrong turn while lost in thought isn’t the same thing.

The greatest difference in normal and severe memory problems is between short- and long-term memory. The dementias rob an individual of short term memory encoding, so that they are unable to recall what they just learned within the last few minutes, but they can recall long-ago events. Short-term memories can’t be retrieved because they were never stored, whereas the long-term memories are still safely ensconced in the storage area of the brain.

3. What causes memory loss?

A: There are many potential causes for memory loss. People who suffer from depression, changes in hormone levels, oxygen deprivation, poor nutrition, brain trauma, sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease, stroke, sleep apnea, and neurocognitive disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease are some of the truly common causes. 

Genetic factors are behind Alzheimer’s Disease in less than five percent of cases. When scientists examine the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient microscopically, two types of abnormalities are present: plaques and tangles. Plaques are clumps of beta-amyloid protein that damage the brain. Tangles are threads of tau proteins that interrupt the brain’s transport system. No one knows exactly what triggers plaques and tangles to develop.

Medical science doesn’t know cause of normal memory loss, either.

4. Is some memory loss reversible?

A: One of the easily reversible reasons for memory loss is sleep apnea. If an individual has been experiencing oxygen deprivation during sleep due to a collapsing airway, the brain can show signs of dysfunction, including memory deficiency. Using a breathing apparatus nightly can restore the oxygen balance to the brain and return memory functioning to previous levels.

Also depression based memory loss can be treated. In many cases, treatment will assist in fighting depression, and as they improve with their treatment, the memory will return to full functioning capability. 

In other cases, improving diet or adding an exercise regimen can also assist with memory, but only if there has not been severe loss and there is no brain trauma or disease. Memory loss caused by treatable brain infections can be reversed by returning the patient to health. In many cases, individuals who have experienced brain trauma can recover some or all of their memory functioning. Cholinesterase inhibitors do not reverse the memory loss of dementia.

5. What is dementia?

A: Dementia is a term used for any lesion or disease that affects the brain and decreases cognitive function.  Dementia is a neurocognitive disorder in medical terms. There are many types of dementia including vascular dementia, Alzheimer's disease, dementia due to substance abuse, dementia due to stroke and dementia due to HIV infection. Dementia can also be caused by a variety of other neurological disorders. 

Dementia is much more than memory loss. Other symptoms are inability to focus attention, inability to plan a sequence of behaviors, learning impairment, and speech impairment, There is a marked decline in self-care skills, and the ability to interact socially.

6. How likely is severe memory loss with advancing age?

A: At age 60, the likelihood of severe memory loss, or dementia, is 1 in 100. At age 85, the probability increases to 1 in 2. The risk factors for dementia include advancing age, a family history of dementia, cardiovascular disease, smoking, heavy drinking, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Although the U.S. population is ageing, dementia rates are falling. In 2000, the rate of dementia diagnosis for Americans 65 years and older was 11.6 percent, and by 2012, the rate had fallen to 8.8 percent. Geriatric experts had expected an increase in Alzheimer’s rates because of the increase in the population of diabetes, but the opposite occurred. Between 2000 and 2012, the average age when patients received an Alzheimer’s diagnosis increased from 80.7 to 82.4.

While it can be unnerving to experience intermittent lapses of memory in middle age, these are usually episodes that many people deal with as they get older. Check with your physician to confirm it is a sign of normal ageing.

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