Increased forgetfulness is a common complaint in aging, and understandably so. As we age, we tend to have more difficulty remembering such things as names of people we just met, where we put our keys, and what we were supposed to pick up at the grocery store. Many people wonder “Is this normal?” or “Should I be worried?” Although severe memory decline is characteristic of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, these rather minor memory problems, while frustrating, are not cause for alarm.
So, what “normal” memory changes should we expect as we age? The good news is, contrary to popular belief, not all memory declines with age. For example, item memory, or memory for individual pieces of information from past events, shows little change across the lifespan. However, association memory, or memory for how things link together, is particularly problematic for older adults. Thus, while we may remember the faces of people we met at a party; it is more difficult to also pair each face with the corresponding name at a later point in time.
Part of this difficulty stems from the fact the as we age, we tend to focus less on the details of events and more on the general gist of events. Remembering the gist of a conversation or an event may very well be enough to bring to mind that memory later, but what we lose is the ability to separate that memory from a similar memory that shares the same gist. For example, we may remember that we spoke to both the doctor and a friend about the topic of medications. But unless we remember the details of each conversation, it is difficult to recall who said what in each of the conversations.
Much of this difficulty with memory arises because the brain region responsible for memory function, the hippocampus, undergoes cell loss and volumetric decliIne across the adult lifespan. This shrinkage can contribute to memory loss.
However, that doesn’t mean memory decline is inevitable. There is much we can do to preserve and improve our memories as we age including reducing stress, eating healthy, and getting proper amounts of sleep and physical activity. The brain is an organ like any other, and improving cardiovascular flow and providing proper care can help maintain healthy functioning. For example, recent research shows that adults age 55 to 80 who engaged in moderate exercise at least three days a week increased the volume of their hippocampus and improved their memory.
Actively trying to remember helps improve memory. That is, rather than reviewing information over and over, research shows that it is more effective to repeat information aloud and test yourself on it. People who quiz themselves on new information remember better than if they simply re-read it or are told the information a second time.
What about calendars, to-do lists, and alarms to help you remember an appointment? Use them! Most of us couldn’t get through the day — at any age — any other way.
Nancy Dennis is an assistant professor of psychology and directs the Cognitive Aging and Neuroimaging Lab at Penn State.