- The Aging Brain’s Dual Nature: As we age, our brains naturally undergo changes. While certain memory functions, like working and episodic memory, may decline causing memory loss, others, such as knowledge from life experiences and reasoning abilities, remain robust. Moreover, the older brain can often see the broader picture rather than just the intricate details, which can be a boon.
- Understanding Memory Loss: Occasional forgetfulness, like misplacing keys or momentarily blanking on a name, is a typical part of aging. However, there are clear distinctions between these normal lapses and signs of conditions like Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) or dementia. Being equipped with this knowledge can help differentiate between everyday forgetfulness and potentially concerning patterns.
- Early Action is Empowering: Memory concerns shouldn’t be brushed under the rug. Recognizing early warning signs and seeking timely medical advice can make a significant difference. Interventions, lifestyle changes, and nutritional strategies can slow or even reverse memory decline, making proactive action essential for maintaining brain health.
In the last blog post, we talked about what is memory, the different types, and how to check in with your memory. In this post, we want to address what is normal vs. abnormal changes in memory loss as we get older.
Changes happen throughout the body as we age, including the brain. Annoying as that is, some parts might not work as efficiently as they once did. Remember when you could effortlessly recall details from a few years back or everyone’s name at a gathering?
Now, at 55, it might take you a tad longer. Sometimes you might grasp at the tip of your tongue for a word or blank on someone’s name. It takes longer to learn and recall information. You’re not as quick as you used to be. In fact, you may mistake this slowing of your mental processes for true memory loss.
While these lapses can be frustrating, they’re not indicative of dementia. So how do you know what to worry about & what not? That’s why it’s important to know the difference between normal age-related forgetfulness and the symptoms that may indicate a developing cognitive problem.
What age-related memory loss and changes can you expect?
Knowing how aging affects memory and cognition is pivotal. It can help you understand what to anticipate when it comes to your own aging. Everyone’s experience varies due to factors like genetics, lifestyle, environment, and underlying health conditions that cause brain fog and affect memory.
The brain is capable of changing and developing across your life span. However, some cognitive functions might weaken, but others could even improve. Significant memory loss is not an inevitable result of aging. Just like muscle strength, if you don’t use your memory, you might lose it.
Areas that tend to stay healthy as you age are:
- Routine tasks you’ve always done.
- Knowledge from life experiences.
- Your common sense and reasoning abilities
Areas of memory that tend to decline are:
- Working memory
- Episodic memory (especially for more recent events)
- Prospective memory
Three areas contributing to age-related memory loss
- The hippocampus, crucial for forming and retrieving memories, can shrink with age.
- Reduced blood flow to the brain can affect memory and cognitive skills.
- The myelin sheath protecting nerve fibers can wear down, slowing communication between neurons.
These changes can affect your ability to encode new information into your memory and retrieve information that’s already in storage
However, the older brain develops more neuron branching, allowing better connectivity between regions. This means you can connect the dots of different pieces of information, putting together the big picture. This might be why elders in many cultures are considered wise: they see the broader picture more than the intricate details.
Normal Memory Lapses in Older Adults
These are not considered signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s:
- Occasionally forgetting why you entered a room.
- Misplacing items like glasses or keys now and then.
- Temporarily forgetting someone’s name.
- Taking longer to retrieve previously acquired information
- Declines in working memory mean having more difficulty solving complex problems
- A decrease in episodic memory may cause you to be a little more forgetful, especially for recent events.
- Prospective memory changes can make you more likely to forget something you were supposed to do.
Warning signs of non-age-related memory loss
Does your memory loss affect your ability to function on a daily basis? Are friends & family noticing a change? If yes, then you may be starting to have memory loss not related to age. The next early stage of memory loss is Mild Cognitive Impairment.
Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)
Between normal memory changes and dementia lies Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). In MCI these difficulties are worse than would normally be expected for a healthy person of their age. However, the symptoms are not severe enough to interfere significantly with daily life, and so are not defined as dementia.
It is estimated that between 5 and 20% of people aged over 65 have MCI. It is not a type of dementia, but a person with MCI is more likely to go on to develop dementia. MCI is more likely to progress to dementia if the person has poorly controlled diabetes.
Many people who are diagnosed with MCI use this as an opportunity to change their lifestyle for the better. There is a lot that someone can do to help reduce their chances of MCI progressing to dementia.
Symptoms of Mild Cognitive Impairment:
- Forgetting recent events or repeating the same question
- Struggling with thinking things through
- being very easily distracted
- Frequently losing or misplacing things.
- Frequently forgetting conversations, appointments, or events.
- Difficulty remembering the names of new acquaintances.
- Difficulty following the flow of a conversation.
Signs of Dementia (includes Alzheimer’s):
Dementia encompasses a range of symptoms affecting memory, reasoning, and thinking. It usually begins gradually, worsens over time, and impairs a person’s abilities in work, social interactions, and relationships.
When memory loss becomes so pervasive and severe that it disrupts your work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, you may be experiencing the warning signs of dementia, Alzheimer’s, another disorder that causes dementia, or a condition that mimics dementia.
Often, memory loss that disrupts your life is one of the first or more recognizable signs of dementia. Other early signs might include:
- Asking the same questions repeatedly
- Forgetting common words when speaking
- Mixing words up — saying “bed” instead of “table,” for example
- Taking longer to complete familiar tasks, such as following a recipe
- Misplacing items in inappropriate places, such as putting a wallet in a kitchen drawer
- Getting lost while walking or driving in a familiar area
- Having changes in mood or behavior for no apparent reason
When to see your doctor:
It’s time to consult a doctor when memory lapses become frequent enough or sufficiently noticeable to concern you or a family member. Your doctor can assess your risk factors, evaluate your symptoms, eliminate reversible causes of memory loss, and help you get appropriate care. Early diagnosis can treat reversible causes of memory loss, lessen decline in vascular dementia, or improve the quality of life in Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.
Memory Health Overview
Understanding where you stand in terms of memory health is essential. To make this clearer, I’ve created a summary chart that outlines the differences between normal age-related memory changes, MCI, and dementia. This visual guide can help you quickly identify and differentiate between these stages, ensuring you’re better equipped to take timely action.
Remember, don’t wait until your brain reaches its tipping point. Early interventions can halt or even reverse memory decline. Together, let’s embrace natural remedies to care for your brain.
When to take action
Many of my patients voice concerns about memory loss, brain fog, and mental fatigue. While common, these can be early warning signs that the brain is declining, and essential to consider interventional changes.
Knowing when to seek help and intervene is crucial. Early interventions can slow down or reverse these changes. If you find yourself having more memory issues there’s hope! In our upcoming posts, we’ll explore nutritional and lifestyle interventions to counter these signs, emphasizing nutrients beneficial for the aging brain.
Your brain’s health is pivotal. Addressing concerns early on, with the right strategies, can make a monumental difference. We’re here to guide you every step of the way. Our goal is to provide you with the tools – from lifestyle changes to nutrition – to care for your brain.