As we age, we may start to realize that our memory is not as sharp as it used to be. Although memory loss may be more common in the aging process, it is not necessarily a normal sign of aging (Harvard Health, 2019). Oftentimes, terms like mild cognitive impairment, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease are used interchangeably to describe age-related memory loss. However, these are not necessarily the same and each affects people differently. Mild forgetfulness and memory loss do not affect everyday living (Harvard Health, 2019). Losing things now and then, forgetting which word to use, or missing a monthly payment once are examples of mild forgetfulness. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia are two categories of cognitive decline. These are illustrated by sudden and/or significant gradual changes in memory loss such as getting lost in familiar places or repeatedly asking the same questions (National Institute on Aging, 2021). It is important to understand the difference between forgetfulness and other age-related memory problems in order to address them appropriately.
Mild Forgetfulness and Memory Loss
Some forgetfulness may be expected as we age, and we do not necessarily need to worry over them. Absentmindedness is a type of forgetting that occurs when you aren’t focusing or paying close attention. Memory also has a “use it or lose it” quality which explains why we may forget facts or events over time. The brain forgets unused memories to make room for new ones (Harvard Health, 2021). Forgetting why you walked into a room, trying to find that word that is on the tip of your tongue, or trying to remember the name of the person you just met are normal examples of forgetfulness (National Institute on Aging, 2021). Forgetfulness is not necessarily a sign that something more serious is happening. Instead, some memory loss may result from the following common causes, and can be improved (Sadick, 2020).
- A common side effect of some prescription medications is temporary memory issues, such as confusion or slowed thinking.
- Older adults may take a wide variety or combination of medications that can cause these cognitive issues.
- If you are experiencing memory issues, consult your physician or pharmacist to review the medications you are taking in order to determine if medications may be causing the memory issues.
- Lack of Exercise
- A lack of exercise can cause brain shrinkage that affects brain cell connections, which can lead to cognitive decline.
- Regular exercise has also been shown to positively affect the health and supply of brain cells.
- Sleep Issues
- Too much sleep or not enough high-quality sleep can both cause memory and reasoning issues.
- During sleep, the brain processes new memories, and this process can be disrupted without enough sleep.
- Anxiety and Depression
- Depression can mimic the signs of memory loss by affecting attention and memory.
- Depression can also decrease brain cell growth and function.
Mild Cognitive Impairment
Mild cognitive impairment, or MCI is a term used to describe an individual who has more memory and thinking issues than typically seen associated with aging. People with MCI are typically still able to take care of themselves and carry out normal daily activities (National Institute on Aging, 2021). MCI is characterized by gradual decline that can last for three to five years before worsening. A diagnosis of MCI does not mean that a person is going to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia later on. There are two main types of MCI. One type, amnestic MCI, involves memory changes such as misplacing items often or quickly forgetting new information. The other type, non-amnestic MCI, involves attention span, concentration abilities, planning, and navigation skills (Harvard Health, 2019).
Dementia is an umbrella term for one or more irreversible disorders that affect the brain. Dementia includes loss of cognitive functioning such as thinking, remembering, and reasoning. In addition to memory loss, an individual’s behavioral abilities are also impacted because issues with language, perception, attention, and personality changes can occur (Harvard Health, 2019). Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia in adults over age 65 (National Institute on Aging, 2021). To learn more about Alzheimer’s disease, read our fact sheet here.
AARP has a quiz to test your understanding of the differences between forgetfulness and dementia. Click here to take the quiz. If you or a loved one have trouble remembering recent events or thinking clearly, reach out to your doctor. The doctor may be able to address potential causes and provide resources to help maintain memory and thinking skills.
Maintaining a Healthy Brain
Understanding the causes of forgetfulness or memory loss is the first step in addressing those issues. In these cases, action can be taken to treat and improve cognition. Some ways to keep the brain healthy are listed below (Harvard Health, 2020):
- Exercise has been shown to protect memory and cognitive skills, where it stimulates the brain and keeps brain cells healthy.
- Exercise and healthy eating can also help improve blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol, which are linked to cognitive decline.
- Eat Healthy
- Good nutrition can help the body and the mind.
- Eating enough fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, and plant-based proteins can help protect against cognitive impairment.
- Similar to getting enough exercise, healthy eating can help control blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol, and help protect against cognitive impairment.
- Stimulate the Brain
- Keeping the brain stimulated can help create new connections within the brain and prevent brain cell loss.
- Mentally stimulating activities such as reading, math, word puzzles, drawing, and painting can help build up the brain.
- Getting enough sleep each night is necessary for our brains to process new memories.
- Read more about sleep on the fact sheet linked here.
- Maintain Social Connections
- Strong social ties have been linked with a lower risk of dementia.
- Regular contact with family and friends is one way to maintain social connections.
Harvard Health. (2019). Get the facts about memory loss. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/get-the-facts-about-memory-loss
Harvard Health. (2020). 12 ways to keep your brain young. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/12-ways-to-keep-your-brain-young
Harvard Health. (2021). Forgetfulness – 7 types of normal memory problems. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/forgetfulness-7-types-of-normal-memory-problems
National Institute on Aging. (2021). Memory, Forgetfulness, and Aging: What’s Normal and What’s Not. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/memory-forgetfulness-and-aging-whats-normal-and-whats-not
Sadick, B. (2020). Memory Loss Often Caused by More General and Reversible Health Issues. Retrieved from https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-2020/avoiding-cognitive-decline.html