Memory and Aging: A complex puzzle

By Megan Edgelow, BSc(OT), MSc(RHBS), OT Reg.(Ont.), Occupational Therapist

Memory and aging can be a source of worry for many people. Common questions include: What memory changes should I expect as I grow older? What is normal and when should I seek health expertise? If I sometimes forget, is something wrong with my brain? Can I improve my memory?

These are excellent questions to ask, and an interest in your memory shows that you are invested in your health and well-being as you age. The good news is, there are many things you can do to improve your memory and daily function. Difficulties with memory are not an inevitable outcome of aging.

When someone’s memory or daily function is obviously impaired, seeking medical assistance is a natural step; the healthcare system is equipped to manage conditions such as dementia. However, for people who notice their memory is changing with age, but don’t have a serious memory impairment, a gap is left. They are often too well to need typical medical treatment, but can be left concerned about their memory, and frustrated by changes they notice.

Typical age-related change:
Forgetting the name of someone you recently met.
Having occasional trouble finding a word.
Misplacing objects from time to time.

Warning signs and symptoms:
Forgetting the name of a loved one.
Forgetting what objects are called.
Putting objects in unusual places, being unable to retrace steps to find objects.

Source: Alzheimer’s Association, 2009

As you age, there will be some changes to your memory. Things that came quickly to mind in your 20s may be more of a struggle in your 70s or 80s. However, a global decline in memory as we age is not typical in healthy older adults, meaning that many memory strengths remain during the aging process. As well, it is possible to learn strategies to improve recall in daily life, and to implement memory aids to improve daily function (Troyer, 2001).

We frequently hear information about how to improve memory. The media reports that certain foods improve memory, or that different activities or exercises may help. Memory exercises, video games and other products are heavily advertised. The wealth of information can be overwhelming, and sometimes misleading.

The truth as we know it today is that improving memory and day to day function is a complex puzzle, and that no one food, product or activity alone will improve it. A holistic approach that considers physical health, as well as the mind (and what we do with it), is key. Research tells us that a healthy diet, adequate physical activity and rest, social connections, enjoyable activities, and managing stress are all important pieces of the puzzle. Lifestyle factors can be managed, and techniques and strategies can be learned for improving the quality of memories you make, and increasing the ease of retrieving them (Troyer & Vandermorris, 2012).

The moral of the story is that memory is a complex puzzle that is tied to overall health and well-being. The good news is that we have a lot of control over factors that improve memory, and with typical aging, we maintain the ability to learn strategies to improve daily function. If you have questions and concerns about memory and aging, speaking with your healthcare team can be a good place to start in order to gain knowledge about memory and aging, and how to improve your own journey.

Sources:

Alzheimer’s Association. (2009). Know the 10 signs. www.alz.org/10signs

Troyer, A.K. (2001).Improving memory knowledge, satisfaction, and functioning via an education and intervention program for older adults. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition (Neuropsychology, Development and Cognition), 8(4), 256-268.

Troyer, A.K., & Vandermorris, S. (2012). Memory and aging program: Leader’s manual. Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, Toronto.