How often has this happened to you: You enter a room and forget why you wanted to go into that room, or you cannot find your keys or your glasses? You may become frightened that you are losing your memory. But in fact, everyone — in any age group — has trouble remembering things from time to time.
Memory is critical to our daily lives. Memory is the capacity to retain information about past events, and helps us plan future events. We should be aware of how our memories work, what changes occur in memory over time, and how we can improve our memories as we get older. Fortunately, most changes in memory are normal changes of the aging process, or may be caused by temporary or treatable problems.
Our brains are amazing organs and the part of our brain that controls memory is a complicated system of numerous functions. Our brains can stay strong and healthy well into old age. But as people get older, memory changes bring on the concern that something may be “wrong” with your mind.
It is important to understand that there are memory problems in all age groups. Children and teenagers seem to forget everything they’ve just been told. Many adults are so busy and have so many distractions, they just don’t have time to remember everything. Seniors are more likely to have difficulty remembering names, items on a list, or where they put things.
In general, no one has a “perfect” memory. Most of what happens around us is forgotten because there’s no need to remember everything. We are bombarded with information all the time and the memory processes only the information that we need to remember.
How Does Memory Work?
The five senses (vision, hearing, touch, taste, smell) help us to receive and record information. If information is not recorded in our brains, we cannot recall it. Using the senses to record information is called Sensory Memory. Think of your brain as a filing cabinet where you store this information.
Short Term Memory is remembering something you just recently saw or heard. For example, remembering the name of someone you just met, or a phone number you just looked up involves short-term memory. Short-term memory only lasts an average of 5 seconds. In order to remember the same information at a later time, your brain transfers this information to Long Term Memory. This is done by repeating the information, or visualizing it. Your long-term memory contains information that you have recorded in your brain in the past. Long-term memory has no limit on capacity and can store vast amounts of information.
Although long-term memory always remains intact, it may take longer to go through the memory filing cabinet to find the exact information you want.
Recall is the final process of remembering. Recall means finding and pulling out information that is stored in your brain’s long-term memory filing cabinet. We often need cues to trigger the recall of certain information.
Age-Related Memory Changes
There are many myths and stereotypes regarding memory problems. Most Seniors have some decrease in memory function but that is not necessarily a sign of declining mental health. Severe memory loss can be caused by Alzheimer’s Disease, stroke, acute alcoholism, and some neurological illnesses. However, minor memory lapses are not indications of dementia. Most seniors will never suffer severe memory loss and the degree and type of any loss varies with the individual.
Age-related memory changes may include:
Slower thinking – as we age, everything slows down a bit, including the speed of processing new information to our brains, and the speed of recalling information. The older we get, the more information is packed into that filing cabinet so it may take a bit longer to retrieve certain memories. It is important to be patient when trying to recall long-term memories and not get frustrated.
Decreased concentration – our ability to pay attention to things decreases with age and we are more easily distracted, especially if we are interrupted. To compensate, we need to strengthen our powers of concentration by paying attention, using our senses, and avoiding interruptions. For example, if the phone rings, turn off the TV so that you can pay attention to the caller. Being a good listener is essential to help you remember. Often the problem is “not listening”, rather than “not remembering” (this principle applies to all ages). Just remember, many memory problems are related to attention, not
Decreased Use of Memory Strategies – visualizing, organizing, and associating are all strategies used by your brain to recall memories. As we age, these strategies slow down and it may require more time to organize and store information. It helps to visualize and think about the object, person, etc. in your mind, over and over.
Need For More Memory Cues – as we get older, we need more cues, or triggers, to jog our memories. For example, if you can’t remember someone’s name, visualize what the person looks like, what job they have, what your last conversation was about, what they wore, etc. The more visualization cues, the more assistance you will give your brain to recall the name.