What is age-related memory loss?
Everyone is forgetful at times. As we age, memory loss can become more apparent and more frustrating. Whether it is forgetting your keys, why you walked into a room, or that name that was just on the tip of your tongue: all of these can be frustrating. This is what’s known as age-related memory loss. Age-related memory loss is not the same as Alzheimer’s or dementia. It is a condition that has to do with physical changes in the brain causing these lapses. Alzheimer’s disease is usually caused by synapse changes in the brain. Knowing how or why these memory lapses are occurring can help you and your loved ones understand if they are a normal part of aging or cause for concern.
What are the most common causes of age-related memory loss?
The physical changing in our bodies and our brain are the main causes of age-related memory loss. The most common cause of age-related memory loss is the deterioration of the hippocampus, hormonal changes, and decreased blood flow to the brain.
Deterioration of the hippocampus
The hippocampus is located in the inner limbic system brain core. This part of the brain controls emotions, learning, and the creation of memories. Age can cause our brains to shrink, causing the hippocampus to deteriorate affecting short-term memory and the ability to learn new information. Stress, physical health, and other factors can cause damage to the hippocampus.
Hormones and proteins that protect and repair the brain decline with age
Hormones, such as estrogen and progesterone, and other proteins are directly connected to protecting the brain’s cells and pathways. As we age, and especially for women, as we go through menopause, levels of these hormones decline, leaving the brain more vulnerable to damage and loss of cognition. The thyroid production of hormones can also affect brain health. Recent studies looking at hormone replacement therapy and other therapeutic protein treatments may be able to help in the future. Regularly checking hormone balances with your physician is vital for maintaining cognitive functioning.
Decreased blood flow to the brain
Brain damage caused by impaired blood flow to the brain can cause impaired reasoning, planning, judgment, and other thought processes. This condition is known as vascular dementia. Strokes or other conditions that cause damage to blood vessels and reduce circulation are seen as the primary cause of this condition. Diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol issues, and smoking increase your risk of vascular dementia because they affect oxygen and other nutrients getting to brain cells.
What is the difference between normal forgetfulness and dementia?
Some forgetfulness as we age is not uncommon, but it differs from dementia. Normal forgetfulness is often caused by a lack of focus and given time the brain will recall. Dementia, however, is a progressive condition, worsening over time. While some symptoms of normal forgetfulness and dementia are similar, forgetting important information, personality changes, inability to manage daily activities and disorientation are cause for concern.
What are the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment (MCI)?
As we age, there are physical changes to our bodies. Our brains undergo similar structural changes, affecting cognitive function. As we have said, some memory loss is common, but whenever you or your loved ones are feeling concerned about your mental abilities it is time to talk to a physician. Increasing memory issues may suggest a condition known as mild cognitive impairment (MCI). Signs and symptoms of MCI include progressively forgetting things more often, forgetting important events, losing your train of thought during a conversation, confusion around familiar environments, and, friends and family noticing these changes.
When to see a doctor for memory loss
Simply put, memory loss that disrupts your daily living or is so noticeable that friends and family members are concerned indicates that it is time to talk with a physician. While we might immediately think of Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to have an evaluation by a medical professional. This is important because some memory loss conditions are treatable or reversible. Other indicators that further consultation is needed include misplacing items in strange places, getting lost in familiar surroundings, or personality changes.
What are the reversible causes of memory loss?
When experiencing any memory loss, it is important to contact your physician. Their diagnosis and observations are important because some medical conditions may mimic dementia but the right treatments can sometimes reverse or slow memory loss. Vitamin deficiencies, medications, and depression are just a few examples of problems that can cause memory loss.
Vitamin B12 deficiency
It’s easy to overlook the role that vitamins and minerals play in maintaining good brain health. A vitamin B12 deficiency often goes unnoticed until the results are significant. Memory loss, deep depression, loss of taste and smell, tingling, and numbness are symptoms of a possible vitamin B12 deficiency. Because B12 is not produced by the body but must be absorbed through the digestive system, older adults may be more susceptible to this deficiency. After diagnosis through blood test analysis, a physician can prescribe treatment.
Side effects of medication
Some prescription and over-the-counter medications can cause memory loss. Antihistamines, several medications used to treat mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and pain medications can interfere with memory. Talk to your doctor if you notice these side effects.
Depression and memory loss go hand in hand. People who suffer from this condition, often struggle with attention, memory, and executive functioning issues. While it can depend on the cause, proper treatment and the right anti-depressant can often help or reverse memory loss.
Thyroid problems can lead to problems with energy, concentration, and cause memory loss often described as “brain fog.” Treatment of this condition, whether hypo/hyperthyroidism, usually results in the reversal of these symptoms.
Heavy alcohol use, whether long or short-term, can result in brain damage because of its direct impact on brain cells, absorption of vitamins, and other effects of alcohol metabolism. Treatments for vitamin deficiencies caused by alcohol use can reverse some symptoms, but by and large, memories of what happened during drinking episodes will not return. Further memory loss will decrease with a decrease in alcohol consumption.
Dehydration can affect short-term memory and other cognitive functions temporarily. However, prolonged dehydration, common in many elderly can cause damage to brain size and function. In young people, cognitive function can be easily reversed by replenishing necessary fluids. However, the prolonged stress of dehydration in the elderly can cause cognitive decline.
How to help with memory loss
Memory loss isn’t inevitable. There are several things you can do to maintain brain health and prevent memory loss. Managing your mental health, staying socially and physically active, eating a healthy diet, and limiting alcohol consumption are all ways to help with memory loss.
Stress impacts the way we remember things. It impacts the way we create memories and how we hold onto them. While some stress is good for us, prolonged stress or trauma can have negative impacts on brain health. Practicing good self-care and mindfulness techniques will help to more accurately remember short-term details and create longer-lasting good memories. Practice deep breathing techniques, journaling, and walking in nature to manage stress.
Stay socially active
Being socially active helps to promote interactions between cells in the brain. As we age, exposing ourselves to new ideas and new conversations helps to combat cognitive decline and preserve memory. Participate in book clubs, crafting activities, and group outings to events that are enjoyable, engaging, and informative to help maintain healthy brain activity.
Chronic smoking has been linked to a breakdown of parts of the brain, including the hippocampus interfering with the ability to process and remember information. Current research indicates that quitting smoking improves the ability to learn new and then use new information.
Get adequate sleep
As we age, sleeping through the night often becomes a challenge. Yet, researchers widely understand that sleep deprivation can impact the consolidation of different types of memories. Sleep deprivation affects focus, attention, and the ability to retrieve information. Without adequate rest, the synapses in our brain do not channel information properly. Getting a good night’s rest can help to learn new information and remember previous memories.
Eat a healthy diet
Brain health and a healthy vascular system are connected. Eating foods that are heart healthy, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils, helps improve the health of blood vessels, reducing the risk of stroke and brain damage.
Stay physically active
Whether it’s getting outside for a walk or chair yoga, regular physical exercise strengthens the brain’s health, retention of new information, and the ability to use that information.
If you or a loved one has concerns about memory loss, be sure to talk with your physician.