February 8, 2012

Forgetting After Fifty

Do you forget people’s names? Do you forget where you put things? Do you have to recheck whether you have done something you meant to do?

As people age, many are concerned about the subtle changes they notice within themselves and wonder if these changes are precursors to a more serious type of memory loss such as Alzheimer’s disease. There are real changes that take place as we age that can affect our memory. To comprehend the changes, one must first have an understanding of memory. The two words frequently used to describe memory; short term and long term are often misunderstood. Long term memory is not just our memory from long ago. It consists of the information we store in our brain for later recall. It could be as simple as remembering what ingredients we need for a recipe when we go shopping. The storage capacity of our long term memory is endless.

Short term memory refers to information that we retain in our conscious thought for short periods of time. If the information does not get transferred to our long term memory it will be forgotten. Severe cognitive impairment occurs when the ability to transfer information from short term to long term memory is lost.

With normal aging, there are several changes that should be expected. First, it becomes more difficult to retrieve information from our long term memory. As we age there is more information stored in our long term memory so it becomes more difficult to find it. Second, as we age it becomes more difficult to pay attention to several things simultaneously. Our capacity to learn new information does not change as we age, it just takes more effort.

There are some real physical and psychological factors that can also affect memory including: medications, stress, nutrition, depression and negative expectations. Once it is understood that real changes do occur to our memory as we age, solutions can formulated to keep the mind active and healthy. Memory loss is not inevitable. As we accept the physical changes that occur in our body as we age, we need to understand what occurs in the brain. Each one of us can draw comfort from knowing that we are not alone.