Problems with remembering, learning and retaining new information are a few of the most common complaints in older adults.
Memory slips are aggravating, frustrating, and sometimes worrisome. When they happen more than they should, they can trigger fears of looming dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
Many people worry about becoming forgetful. This is because they think that forgetfulness is the first sign of Alzheimer's disease or dementia, and it may well be. But it is more than likely that these conditions are not the reason for forgetting.
The concern is understandable. My May 2010 newsletter Alzheimer's Disease, states:
"In the early stages of Alzheimer's, the symptoms can be minimal and quite subtle. It generally begins with lapses of memory and difficulty in finding the right words for everyday objects. Other symptoms and signs may include persistent and frequent memory difficulties, especially for recent events."
If you have concerns about Alzheimer's disease in yourself, a family member or a friend, I recommend you read my newsletter about this increasingly common condition.
However, as mentioned above, forgetting or forgetfulness has many other reasons that are not Alzheimer's disease or dementia.
Age-Related Changes in Memory
Forgetting or forgetfulness can be a normal part of ageing. As people get older, changes occur in all parts of the body, including the brain. As a result, some people may notice that it takes longer to learn new things, they don't remember information as well as they did, or they lose things like their glasses or keys. These usually are signs of mild forgetfulness, not serious memory problems.
Some older adults also find that they don't do as well as younger people on complex memory or learning tests. Scientists have found that, given enough time, healthy older people can do as well as younger people in these tests. In fact, as they age, healthy adults usually improve in areas of mental ability such as vocabulary.
Forgetting is also called retention loss. It refers to apparent loss or modification of information already encoded and stored in an individual's long term memory. It is a spontaneous and gradual process in which old memories are unable to be recalled from memory storage.
Memory performance is usually related to the active functioning of three stages:
Many different factors influence the actual process of forgetting. The amount of time information is stored in the memory (minutes, hours or days) can increase or decrease depending on how well the information is encoded. Retention improves with rehearsal because this helps to transfer information into long term memory - practice makes perfect.
Forgetting can be reduced by repetition and/or more elaborate cognitive processing of information.
Emotional states are just one of the many factors that have been found to affect this process of forgetting. Emotional problems such as stress, anxiety, or depression, can make a person more forgetful and can even be mistaken for dementia. To give but one example: recent retirement, or the death of someone close, may lead to sadness, loneliness, worry and/or boredom, and trying to deal with these life changes may lead to confusion or forgetfulness.
Failing to retrieve an event does not mean that this specific event has been forever forgotten. This could just mean that the information was not encoded well. How often it is that at the time you want to, or need to, remember the name of a person or place, that name just won't come to conscious awareness ... then a few minutes later, when not trying to think of it, the name just pops into the mind.
Other Causes of Memory Loss
Some memory problems and forgetfulness are related to health issues, many of which are treatable.
· Lack of sleep
Not getting enough sleep is perhaps the greatest unappreciated cause of forgetting.
Tranquillisers, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and blood pressure drugs, as well as other drugs, can affect memory, usually by causing sedation and confusion.
· Under-active thyroid
A relative lack of thyroid hormone can lead to forgetting (as well as disturb sleep and cause depression, both of which can contribute to memory slips). Myxoedema is the diagnosis when there is severe reduction in thyroid function. (See my June 2011 newsletter Poor Thyroid Function - Signs, Symptoms and Solutions.)
Drinking too much alcohol can interfere with short-term memory, even after the effects of alcohol have worn off. (For responsible drinking see my September 2012 newsletter What is a Standard Drink? Guidelines for Alcohol Intake.)
· Stress and Anxiety
Both stress and anxiety make it harder to concentrate and lock in (encode and store) new information and skills, and can thus lead to memory problems and forgetting.
Forgetfulness can be a sign of depression, or a consequence of it.
· Other possible health issues causing memory loss include:
Ø Vitamin B12 deficiency
Ø Tumours or infection in the brain
Ø Blood clots in the brain
Ø Liver disease
Ø Kidney disease.
How to Keep the Brain Healthy
· Exercise and Activity
One of the simplest ways to keep the brain healthy, and prevent forgetting, is to stay active and exercise. Staying active is important because, over all, it keeps the body healthy. When the body is healthy, the brain is healthy and less inflamed as well. Studies showed that older adults who were more active were found to have had less episodes of forgetting compared to those older adults who were less active. (For more detailed information on the health benefits of exercise, see my November 2010 newsletter The Health Benefits of Exercise and my April 2013 newsletter Exercise - The Secret to Better Health.)
· A Healthy Diet
A healthy diet can contribute to a healthier brain, and delay the ageing process, which in turn results in less frequent forgetting.
The diet should ideally be made up of 75-80% alkali-forming foods (vegetables, fruits, lentils, nuts, seeds, ie plant based) and 20-25% acid-forming foods (all animal products, including milk and cheese, and refined foods). (For details of a healthy diet, see my September 2005 newsletter Acid/alkaline Balance - The Ideal Diet and my March 2009 newsletter Foods for Health.)
· Medicinal Herbs
Many studies have shown medicinal herbs to have a beneficial effect on the memory. The following herbs seem to be the most effective:
Ø Ginkgo Biloba
Ø Green tea
Also effective, but to a lesser extent, are:
Ø Huperzine A.
In general, these herbs improve memory and concentration, as well as help to prevent or delay the deterioration of mental functioning often experienced in older age. (For a detailed discussion of the role of herbs in memory, see my February 2009 newsletter Improving Memory with Herbs.)
· Other Helpful Suggestions
Plan tasks, make ‘to-do’ lists, and use memory aids like notes and calendars.
It has been shown that it is possible to remember things better if the person mentally connects them to other meaningful things, such as a familiar song, book, TV show or character.
Develop interests or hobbies and stay involved in activities that can help both the mind and the body.
A stress management program could get your memory back on track.
If memory lapses are a concern to you, it is worth discussing the problem with your doctor or other health professional to see if there is a cause, as set out above, which can be treated. For example, a change in medication may make a significant difference. The doctor or other professional would also be in a position to ascertain if the forgetfulness may be an early sign of dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
With this knowledge, whatever the diagnosis, early intervention, including the above suggestions on how to help keep the mind healthy, gives a better prognosis.
Don't forget to access the newsletters referred to above. The more information you have, the less you will be worried about "forgetting", and the more you will be motivated to become involved with helping yourself.
*Copyright 2015: The Huntly Centre.
Disclaimer: All material in the huntlycentre.com.au website is provided for informational or educational purposes only. Consult a health professional regarding the applicability of any opinions or recommendations expressed herein, with respect to your symptoms or medical condition.
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