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Memory Decline With Aging: Can It Be Prevented?
Healthy Living - June 24, 2014
David Prescott, PhD
In about 15 years, 20 percent of the American population will be over 65 years old. One of the most common concerns about aging is memory and whether memory difficulties are inevitable as we grow older. In addition, seniors want to know what, if anything, they can do to prevent memory loss.
Does Memory Actually Decline With Age? Research suggests that memory and mental functioning does decline in some areas with age, but normal memory decline typically has minimal impact on seniors’ ability to work and function every day. Common areas of memory that decline slightly with age include:
• The ability to find certain words during conversations.
• The ability to learn new information quickly. Learning speed typically slows down with aging, and learning new things may require more repetition as we age. Psychologists believe that we take more time to encode and retrieve memories as we age.
• Long term memory (what happened this morning or yesterday) is more likely to diminish compared to short term memory (what happened five minutes ago).
Is Memory Loss the Same as Dementia? In a word, no. While most people experience some memory loss with age, only about 5-7% of people over age 65 have dementia. Dementia refers to significant problems with memory and at least one other cognitive ability such as language or reasoning. As noted by the American Psychological Association‘s Help Center, dementia can be caused by Alzheimer’s disease or other age-related problems such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease. Dementia is irreversible, although steps can be taken to minimize its effects.
Do Memory Enhancement Programs Prevent Memory Loss and Dementia? Current research does not show a clear association between ‘brain training’ exercises and general improvement in memory. People do appear to improve in their performance on specific brain training exercises, but it does not appear to generalize to other areas. However, there do appear to be memory benefits to staying physically active and socially engaged.
What Can Seniors Do to Enhance Memory? In general, the factors most closely related to keeping memory problems to a minimum appear to be good physical health and staying engaged in meaningful social activities. Said another way, psychologists know that stress and poor physical health make memory problems worse. If you address the problems of stress and poor health, you also help prevent memory decline. Examples of things to do include:
• Find ways to be independent: Independence in the elderly may be different than independence of younger adults, due to physical limitations or general life circumstances. But, finding ways to respect the preferences and self-worth of our senior citizens is a good way to combat depression, and to keep their mind active.
• Engage in activities which reduce the risk for vascular problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke, are also associated with better cognitive function and lower risk of dementia. These include having a healthy body weight, engaging in regular aerobic exercise and good eating habits.
• Healthy Diets: Research shows that healthy diets rich in unsaturated fats, such as vegetable and fish oils, can also decrease the risk of cognitive decline.
• Rule Out Depression or Anxiety: Mental health problems such as depression or anxiety often cause temporary problems with memory and concentration. Often, improvement in mood leads to improvement in memory.
American Psychological Association Psychology Topics: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/senior-forgetfulness.aspx
National Institute of Mental Health: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/older-adults-and-mental-health/index