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Aging and Memory Loss

Age-related memory loss is a common experience for older adults. As you age, you might notice that you forget your keys more frequently or that it takes a little longer to remember the names of people or places. Elderly adults often attribute these instances of forgetfulness to a “senior moment,” and in most cases, this is true.
It can feel scary or overwhelming to notice memory loss in yourself or an older loved one. You may worry that it’s a sign of a more serious health issue or that the memory loss will get worse with time. However, mild memory loss is a normal and expected part of aging for most people. It’s not the same as the memory loss or cognitive impairment caused by Alzheimer’s or other neurological diseases, and it probably won’t affect your ability to live independently.
Understanding what age-related memory loss looks like and why it happens can help to put your mind at ease if you’re worried that your mind isn’t as sharp as it used to be. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to manage mild memory loss so that you can continue to live a happy, active life despite this cognitive issue.

Does Short-term Memory Decline With Age?

Both long-term and short-term memory can decline as part of the aging process. Your long-term memory includes the people, events, and places that are stored in your mind for a lasting amount of time. Your short-term memory is your brain’s capacity to remember information for about 30 seconds after you receive it.
Forgetfulness of recent events is often a sign of a short-term issue with your memory. For example, you might ask someone a question and then forget their answer right after they reply. Losing items is another common result of memory loss as your brain forgets to store the information about where you placed the object.

Dementia vs Age Related Memory Loss

Age-related memory loss is separate from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Showing the typical signs of memory loss with age does not indicate that you have dementia, and it does not guarantee that your memory or cognition will get worse.
Here are some common experiences among seniors who have age-related memory loss:

  • Misplacing items or forgetting where you left something
  • Mixing up names or struggling to remember someone’s name
  • Forgetting an appointment or forgetting to pay a bill
  • Feeling like you have the word for something “on the tip of your tongue” but not being able to recall it
  • Taking longer than you once did to memorize new information or learn a new skill
  • Difficulty with multitasking

The following are some of the most notable signs and symptoms of dementia:

  • Difficulty completing chores or self-care tasks due to forgetfulness or confusion
  • Difficulty processing language; frequently misusing or jumbling words
  • Impaired judgment or decision-making abilities
  • Frequently getting lost in familiar locations
  • Changes in mood and personality

A significant difference between normal memory loss and dementia is the ability to remember your forgetfulness. Most seniors who experience an age-related decline in memory are aware that their memory has slipped, and they can cite specific examples of their memory issues. People with dementia, on the other hand, usually have a harder time describing or recounting their memory problems. They may realize that they’re forgetful, but they don’t have as much self-awareness of the situation as seniors with age-related cognitive decline.

Causes of Memory Loss With Age

Memory loss is common with age due to natural changes in the brain. There are many areas of your brain involved in memory, but the main memory center is the hippocampus. In most adults, the hippocampus starts to shrink in older age, which can affect your ability to recall information.
The areas of the brain that recognize familiar people, places, or items usually stay in-tact in a healthy aging brain, though. For instance, you might run into someone you know in a public place and remember that you know them but struggle to recall their name. Your brain may simply take a few extra moments to process the information, which is normal for the typical aging person.
The changes in your brain that happen naturally with aging may not be reversible, but there are also many causes of memory loss in people of all ages that can be addressed through medical treatments or lifestyle changes. The following are common examples of treatable causes of memory loss:
Mental health disorders: Depression, anxiety, stress, and other emotional health concerns can have a strong impact on your cognition. You might feel forgetful, scatterbrained, confused, or distracted when you’re going through a mental health issue.
Vitamin deficiencies: Certain vitamin deficiencies can affect how your nerve cells function, which may lead to memory loss. B-12 is a particularly common deficiency among older adults and may be a reversible cause of your memory loss or cognitive decline.
Hypothyroidism: Your thyroid controls your metabolism, so an under-active thyroid can make you feel sluggish, foggy, or confused. Memory loss is a common symptom of hypothyroidism because it affects your brain’s ability to focus and retain information.
Head injuries: Older adults are at an increased risk of slipping and falling, and a head injury can be a serious cause for concern. Head injuries may result in a number of harmful symptoms, and memory loss may be an indicator that you’ve sustained a concussion or damage.
Chronic alcohol abuse: Excessive, long-term alcohol misuse may lead to memory loss for people of any age. This is especially true if alcohol interacts with medications you take regularly.
Medication side effects: Memory loss is a common side effect for many different medications. In this case, your doctor may be able to adjust your medication regimen so that you don’t experience as much memory loss, or they might recommend other changes you can make to minimize the memory loss.

What to Do if You’re Worried About Memory Loss

Small and occasional moments of memory loss shouldn’t be cause for concern for aging adults. However, feeling worried about your cognitive health is completely valid. If you feel stressed or anxious about a memory issue, talk to your doctor about the situation. Your physician can run tests to rule out underlying causes, and they can make sure the memory loss isn’t a symptom of a more severe issue. This can help to put your mind at ease.
If you notice that your memory problems are affecting your daily functioning, you should reach out to your doctor or trusted family members for support. For example, if you repeatedly forget to turn off your oven or stove when cooking or feel confused while driving, it may be time to seek help for some of your daily tasks.
Staying physically, mentally, and socially active can help you maintain or improve your memory. Look for opportunities to engage with family and friends or attend outings, and participate in mentally stimulating hobbies. Your brain is like a muscle, so the more you use it, the more it will stay in shape.
Counseling can be a helpful resource for managing the emotional effects of memory loss. If you feel anxious or overwhelmed by this experience, a therapist can help you understand your emotions and find healthy coping skills for the aging process. Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides mental health services for seniors facing memory loss and other concerns. Contact us today to learn more about our practice.

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