If you find yourself using a lot of sticky notes to remember your to-dos, you’re not alone. As we age, it is not uncommon for people to experience memory lapses that may get more frequent and frustrating. Understanding different types of memory loss and normal memory loss that comes with aging may reduce any anxiety or frustration you may have.
What are normal memory changes as we age?
Thinking, also known as cognitive function, changes with age. Though there is variability across people, let’s explore the general trends.
Perceptual abilities can affect your ability to think
Sensory and perceptual declines, such as reductions in hearing and vision, are common with aging and can have a great impact on daily life. Hearing loss can make it hard to engage in conversation, have successful social interactions, and maintain social relationships, leading to isolation. Declining vision can make activities, such as reading and driving, more difficult. When you’re struggling to see or hear, you are less likely to process the information received.
Attention and concentration decline with age
Selective attention is the ability to attend to some information while ignoring other information, such as listening to your spouse while disregarding the television. In general, older individuals are slower to respond to target information, such as information coming from a spouse, but remain able to ignore irrelevant information like the television.
Divided attention requires either the processing of two or more sources of information or doing two things at the same time. For example, listening to your spouse while still trying to listen to the television divides our attention. Data suggests older adults are less able to divide their attention than younger adults, especially when the demands for attention are high. Task-switching requires a person to switch back and forth between two tasks, such as scanning the visual landscape and then a car’s dashboard controls.
Older adults perform task-switching slower than younger adults. Older adults also have more difficulty with activities requiring active manipulation, reorganization or integration of information in their current focus of attention, such as adding large numbers in their heads. Speed of thinking also changes with age. Older adults tend to process information slower than younger adults.
Sustained attention used for tasks, such as reading a book, is generally not impaired in older adults.
Memory changes occur with aging
Episodic memory — memory for specific events that occurred at a specific place and time — is reduced in normal aging. One cause is poor encoding. Not paying attention to where you parked your car in a large lot, or where you set your keys when you got home are examples. Information that is not well-encoded is harder to retrieve.
Episodic memory is also affected by the level of information storage or consolidation. Taking a minute to really pay attention to where you are leaving your keys or your car on a particular day, and nearby landmarks, can be very helpful. Another option is to always park your car and put your keys in the same place.
Finally, episodic memory is impacted by the ability to retrieve stored information. It gets harder to recall information without hints or cues as we age. For example, if you don’t write a note that the plumber has called, you might not remember to tell your partner. If your spouse asks, “Did the plumber call?” it’s much easier to remember the conversation you had with the plumber.
Other types of memory
Semantic memory, or a person’s general store of information, is generally preserved in normal aging. In fact, the fund of information of older adults often exceeds that of young people, though information retrieval, particularly words and names, may be slower.
Autobiographical memory, that is, memory of one’s personal past, is largely preserved with age, though the fine details of those experiences may fade. Interestingly, people are often best at recalling both recent information and events between the ages of 15 and 25, perhaps because of the high emotionality of memories during the late teen and young adult years.
Procedural memory for skills, such as playing the piano or riding a bike, once well learned, tend to be retained throughout life. Older adults also tend to use good compensation techniques to maintain effective prospective memory, which is remembering to do things in the future, such as paying bills on time or going to an appointment. External aids, such as medication boxes, calendars and appointment books can help.
Older adults are generally good at remembering small events, though they might not remember where or when something happened or was heard. It is also common to second-guess whether something actually happened or if you just thought about it. For example, “Did I take my medication, or did I just think about taking it?”
Older adults and cognitive skills
Speech and language skills are largely intact in older adults in normal aging, though processing may be slower than that of younger adults. Conversation skills tend to improve with age, as does vocabulary. Comprehension is generally good, though perhaps slower, even when individuals are not impeded by hearing loss. Older adults can have more difficulty comprehending syntactically complex text or speech.
In decision-making, older adults tend to rely more on prior knowledge and less on new information when making decisions, compared with younger people. They also may rely more on expert opinion than do younger adults.
Executive functioning — the ability to plan, organize, coordinate, implement and evaluate the effectiveness of non-routine activities — can become more difficult with age.
The big question
Some of us may ask ourselves, workmates, relatives or friends: “Am I losing it?” This is especially true when we forget something important or do something silly, like look for reading glasses that are on our head. Fortunately, for most of us the simple answer is, “No. You’re not losing it.”
There are medical conditions that may lead to treatable causes of memory loss. If you have doubts, talk to your doctor. Special psychometric testing can be done to determine the difference. I am available on referral to do this type of testing.
If you are interested in learning more about our mental health services, please contact us.
In Dr. Julie E. Redner’s next post, learn about the signs and symptoms of dementia, at what age it begins, how it is diagnosed, potential risk factors, and what steps to take if symptoms are present.