How Memory Changes as You Age

For Better and Worse: A Look at How Memory Changes as You Age

by Christina Vanvuren, writer at Whole Family MD

As you age, you may find yourself having memory lapses more often — forgetting where you set your car keys, missing important calls, or forgetting which medication you already took. While being forgetful is common, even in children and young adults, it can sometimes feel scary when you’re getting older.

It used to be thought that our brain connections developed only in the first few years of life, leveled off in the twenties, and declined starting around middle age. However, new research has found that our brains are developing and changing throughout our whole lives.

The good news is that the brain actually changes in positive ways as you get older. An article published on the Harvard Medical School blog explains, “These changes enable the aging brain to become better at detecting relationships between diverse sources of information, capturing the big picture, and understanding the global implications of specific issues. Perhaps this is the foundation of wisdom. It is as if, with age, your brain becomes better at seeing the entire forest and worse at seeing the leaves.” You aren’t losing your memory, necessarily. Your memory just works differently as you age.

Still, it can be challenging to convince yourself that your more forgetful moments aren’t a big deal; there’s no disputing the connection doctors make between cognitive decline and dementia. However, when you experience anxiety about whether or not you’re “losing it,” as the stereotype of aging and memory loss perpetuates, it becomes more difficult to learn and remember things. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy! There’s also evidence that shows that people who believe they can do something perform better at that task.

As you get older, it’s important to take care of you brain just as much as you care for your body. Even if you didn’t start taking great care of your physical and mental health in your twenties or thirties, it’s never too late to start. You may even be surprised at how quickly your health improves with just a few small steps. Keep reading to learn ways to build and retain a healthy, strong mind.

Get organized with systems
It doesn’t matter how old you are — if you set your car keys (or wallet, or phone) down in a different spot every time, you’re bound to misplace them. The best way to overcome these annoyances, that can often turn into an extra twenty minutes you didn’t really have in the first place, is to create a system. Putting organized systems into place will eliminate the need for you to remember certain tasks, allowing you to relax your mind. Whether you need to put your keys on a hook by the door, write a to-do list, or create calendar reminders for birthdays and events, figure out what would be most helpful in your day-to-day and start implementing it now.

Believe in your brain
You don’t have to stop using your anti-aging serum, and it is fine to use lists and post it notes to help yourself remember. Our brains do change, and retrieval of information can sometimes be more challenging both due to age and due to the complexity of details in our adult lives. You can take positive steps to keep your brain working at its best and make up for the slip ups. Regular exercise, down time away from distractions like social media, learning new skills, reading, spending time with active friends, volunteering, and challenging yourself with “brain games” are all fun and impactful ways to get your brain fired up. In other words, your cognitive health is not fixed in a downward slide. Your aging brain has more potential than you think.

Know what’s normal and what’s not
Changes in the way your brain works as you age happen on a scale. The continuum of memory loss includes normal age-related memory loss, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), and more severe memory loss. Frequently losing or misplacing things, frequently forgetting conversations and appointments, trouble remembering the names of new people, and difficulty staying engaged in conversation can be normal, a mild sign of memory problems, or a more serious problem depending on the degree. Memory loss can also be mimicked by depression or anxiety, thyroid problems and medication side effects. Before you get worried, if you or your loved one would like to discuss your cognitive abilities, please make an appointment with your physician. Chances are, we can help sort out what is going on and get you the help that you need.