Trying to remember – age related memory loss

Posted on October 7, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
Mature man trying to remember something

I’ve always had a great memory. If you told me a person’s name once, I’d remember it forever. Similarly, my memory bank has always been packed to the rafters with the kind of information, some of it outright trivia, that earned me the nickname of ‘Walking Wikipedia” among my students. For most of my life I never quite understood why other people couldn’t recall the name of a film or a book, or retain newly learnt words of a foreign language for more than a few hours, thereby making almost every class a revision of the previous day’s vocabulary.

However, I have noticed in recent years that suddenly, names and words, plus the titles of films and books occasionally try to escape me. I am aware that I haven’t forgotten them completely, but my ability to pull them out of my memory in nanoseconds is increasingly giving way to that ‘it’s on the tip of my tongue’ feeling. I have learnt that the harder I search for the answer I’m looking for, the less likely it is to appear. My solution for this is to think of something completely different and then the answer I want pops into my mind as if by magic.

Forgetting feels, to me at least, slightly worrying; is it a symptom of some underlying condition? Or is it simply part of the ageing process? I’m sure that I’m not the only one who encounters these changes and fears the worst, especially if like me you have the tendency to Google a bunch of symptoms and come up with a diagnosis of bubonic plague. Actually, this tendency didn’t start with Google; it started with my grandmother’s medical dictionary of diseases and their symptoms. It’s very easy to self-diagnose impending doom when you have one of these tomes to hand.

Man completing a crossword outside

Forgetfulness causes

However, the good news is that age-related memory loss is ‘normal’ and not necessarily a sign of something more serious. And, in order to allay any fears, let’s look at what the health experts say constitutes memory loss as part of ageing and distinguishes it from “symptoms of a developing cognitive problem.”

We all go through physiological changes that “cause glitches in brain functions” say both HelpGuide and Harvard Medical School. The hippocampus, “a part of the brain that plays an important role in the formation and retrieval of memories” can start to deteriorate with age, and hormonal changes alongside changes in the level of proteins required for the protection and repair of brain cells also affect memory. In my own experience, those moments when I thought, “Why did I come in the kitchen?” coincided with the menopause, a process that certainly involved major hormonal changes. I recall a former partner complaining to his friend “she remembers everything.” The friend’s response was, “she’ll soon start forgetting stuff.” I was less than impressed with both of them, but have to admit that once the whole menopause malarkey was over, the ‘blank’ moments started to appear. However, my memory loss isn’t severe enough to have forgotten that exchange of male ‘wisdom’.

The experts are aware that many in the population are worrying that this slowing down of our mental processing is a precursor to “true memory loss” and are at pains to allay these fears and show us how to distinguish between a widely-experienced situation and a serious condition, such as dementia. For example, here are examples of ‘normal forgetfulness’ from HelpGuide:

  • Occasionally forgetting where you left things you use regularly, such as glasses or keys.
  • Forgetting names of acquaintances or blocking one memory with a similar one, such as calling a grandson by your son’s name.
  • Occasionally forgetting an appointment.
  • Having trouble remembering what you’ve just read, or the details of a conversation.
  • Walking into a room and forgetting why you entered.
  • Becoming easily distracted.
  • Not quite being able to retrieve information you have “on the tip of your tongue.”

These small memory lapses don’t really have a major impact on everyday life, whereas the development of dementia does. Dementia-related conditions are marked by a “persistent, disabling decline in two or more intellectual abilities such as memory, language, judgement, and abstract thinking.”

Indeed, the fact that you are aware that you are experiencing forgetfulness is an important sign that you are going through normal, age-related memory changes. A healthy, balanced diet supplemented with Omega-3 fish oils, vitamin B12 and D if needed, physical exercise to keep the circulation moving and activities that involve using the memory in particular, such as learning a foreign language, puzzles or pub quizzes are the tools that combat memory loss. And, don’t get stressed; being forgetful is quite normal, so have a laugh about it.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.