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March 6, 2008
Memory and aging: What's normal, what's not, and what you can do about it
Michael Vitiello

By Michael V. Vitiello, Ph.D.
Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences

As we grow older we often become concerned about changes in our memory. While some changes in memory are normal, there are some changes in memory that should cause concern and deserve professional attention. Here is a simple guide to what is normal about memory changes as we get older, and what is not. The causes of many memory problems are described as well as ways to keep your memory healthy.

We often experience lapses in memory that are common in NORMAL aging and that are nothing to be concerned about. Here are some examples:

  • Forgetting names, particularly of new acquaintances
  • Getting a little more confused or flustered when performing too many tasks at once
  • Taking more time and energy to learn new information ... it "feels" more effortful
  • Less information can be learned in a short period of time
  • Information may not be readily recalled at the time it is needed

However, we may also experience lapses of memory that are NOT typical of NORMAL aging. These can be of concern and should be discussed with your doctor. Here are some examples of these kinds of more serious memory-related lapses:

  • Feeling confused more often than usual
  • Getting lost in familiar surroundings
  • Repeating bits and pieces of conversations more often than usual
  • Family members and friends notice a difference in your memory
  • Difficulty managing finances or other day-to-day tasks that were not previously a problem
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and usual activities

We may also experience problems with memory, that while not as serious as those described above, may be a WARNING SIGN of problems with memory that may become more serious with time. Again, these should be discussed with your doctor. Some examples of these "warning signs" are:

  • More difficulty remembering appointments, dates, events, conversations.
  • May feel "overwhelmed" more often
  • Feel that "something is not right", even though others may fail to notice a change
  • May feel a little more irritable or "short fused" than usual
  • May feel more "stressed" than usual
  • May feel like your mood is not what it used to be

Many people are surprised to find out that memory is affected by STRESS and by MOOD. In addition certain medications can interfere with memory as can a number of medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and sleep apnea. As you might expect, poor diet or drug or alcohol abuse can also be detrimental to memory.

How can you improve your memory? First, it is important to address and correct when possible, or at the very least, successfully manage some or all of the conditions mentioned above. The health of the brain is dependent upon the health of the body. Second, reducing stress and working to improve mood can be beneficial for memory. Finally, you may benefit from a discussion with your doctor about how your medications can be adjusted to best protect your memory.

Here are some other tips about how to keep your memory sharp:

  • Exercise regularly (both physically and mentally)
  • Get involved in active leisure pursuits
  • Engage in active learning throughout life and pursue new experiences
  • Stay socially engaged with friends, family and community groups
  • Take steps to manage stress
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Mind your numbers: lose any extra pounds, lower your cholesterol if it is high, keep your blood sugar and blood pressure under control
  • Get proper medical attention and treatment for any underlying health problems

Following these simple guidelines may help ensure a healthy memory.

Michael V. Vitiello, PhD, is a UW professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and principal investigator of the Somatotrophics, Memory and Aging Research Trial (SMART) Study, a research project examining ways to improve memory in older adults. If you are an older adult who may have memory problems and are interested in learning more about the SMART study, please call 206-685-6607.

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