Memory lapses are normal cognitive changes that come with aging

Staying mentally and physically active can help improve memory.

After age 50, many people notice increased forgetfulness and may be concerned about developing dementia. Forgetting where you parked your car or where you left your glasses can be frustrating and embarrassing, and using humor to acknowledge “a senior moment” often helps to dispel some anxiety!

Michigan State University Extension recommends staying mentally active and including daily physical activity as healthy lifestyle choices to improve memory. Eat low-fat protein, fruits, vegetables and whole grains to provide the nutrients needed to keep your brain sharp. Watch what you drink – too little water or too much alcohol can lead to confusion and memory loss. Stimulate your brain by doing puzzles, learning new skills, or taking an alternate route to a familiar destination. Play games, including free online brain games such as those offered by AARP, where you can adjust the skill level.

Other factors in addition to age that can contribute to forgetfulness include medical conditions and emotional problems. It is a good idea to review your medications with your health care provider to review possible side effects that may impact memory. Stress and depression can also contribute to memory loss, so make sure to enjoy regular social interaction with family and friends, especially if you live alone. Sleep is vital in helping your brain sort, consolidate and store your memories, so try to get seven to eight hours of sleep each day.

When you really pay attention to something, you remember it better. New information is lost from short term memory unless it is repeated again and again. Focusing your attention causes your brain to release special chemicals that strengthen learning and memory. You are more likely to remember appointments and other events if you keep track of them in a special notebook or calendar. The act of writing it down or saying it out loud will reinforce it in your memory. To avoid misplacing items, be diligent about putting your wallet or purse, keys and glasses in the same place each day. When you can’t recall a word or name, review the facts of the story or event.

Remembering other details will help trigger the memory you are searching for. Who has not walked into a room and then not remembered why you were going there? These are very common lapses that usually result from lack of attention or focus. By mentally retracing your steps or physically going back to where you were, the thought will often come back. Staying focused on your immediate task will help avoid this annoying experience. Studies show that the older we get, the more the brain has to exert effort to maintain focus. It also takes longer to get back to an original task after an interruption, so avoid multitasking to reduce distractions.

While memory loss is a common symptom of dementia, memory loss by itself does not mean that a person has dementia. Dementia is not a specific disease. It is a descriptive term for a collection of symptoms that can be caused by a number of disorders that affect the brain. Although it is common in very elderly individuals, dementia is not a normal part of the aging process.

See your doctor if you have serious memory problems that make it hard to do everyday tasks. For example, you may find it hard to drive, shop or even talk with a friend. Signs of serious memory problems may include:

  • Asking the same questions over and over again
  • Getting lost in places you know well
  • Not being able to follow directions
  • Becoming more confused about time, people and places

By taking steps to maintain memory, and seeking help with serious memory problems for ourselves or loved ones when needed, we can manage cognitive changes without allowing them to diminish our enjoyment of life.

More resources about healthy aging are available at the National Council on Aging and the American Society on Aging.

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