The Alzheimer’s Society estimates that about 40% of those older than 65 experience some age-related memory loss. Five to eight percent of those older than 60 live with dementia at some point. The organization exclaims that not everyone suffers from this condition and further divides the severity of memory loss into categorizations.
Discover the differences between regular age-related memory loss versus dementia and what you can do about it here.
What Is Normal Age-Related Memory Loss?
The biological process of aging can eventually cause glitches in normal activities of daily living. It may be harder to remember names and titles and take longer to learn and recall information. You just might not feel as sharp as you once did as well.
For most elderly people, lapses in short-term memory, forgetfulness, and the like are normal and not necessarily warning signs of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Generally speaking, these lapses don’t interfere with daily living.
Signs of normal age-associated memory loss:
- Occasionally forgetting where you left things
- Forgetting the names of acquaintances
- Blocking memories – calling a grandson by the name of your son or the like
- Forgetting an appointment on occasion
- Walking into a room and forgetting why
- Lower ability to retrieve information “on the tip of your tongue”
- Becoming easily distracted or having to reread a page of a book
- Incorrectly remembering an event, experience, etc.
In between age-associated memory loss and dementia lies mild cognitive impairment (MCI) which isn’t considered normal. Instead, it’s considered to be a point along a pathway toward dementia.
Not everyone with MCI will develop dementia or Alzheimer’s as healthy intervention can stall or inhibit the onset. However, this type of memory impairment nonetheless begins to affect daily life.
Signs of mild cognitive impairment:
- Completely forgets recent events or experiences
- Repeats the same questions and/or tells the same stories
- Forgets the names of close friends and family
- Frequently forgets appointments or scheduled events
- Regularly misplaces items or stores them different than usual
- Difficulty recalling words or understanding language they once did
- Loses focus or is easily distracted very frequently
- Struggles with some daily activities like paying bills, taking medications, cooking, household chores, and driving
When memory loss or impairment is so severe that it regularly impedes normal, daily activities of living, that’s generally considered dementia. The biggest delineating factor between age-related and mild cognitive impairment and dementia is the inability to learn and/or retain new information.
At this point, many folks have trouble completing tasks they were once familiar with. Other people blatantly notice differences, and a part or full-time caregiver may be necessary.
Signs of diagnosable dementia:
- Total inability to recall recent events, conversations, etc.
- Unable to recognize close family members
- Forgets nearly everything quickly
- Frequent pauses or substitutions for once-known words
- Difficulty performing simple tasks (dressing, bathing, paying bills)
- Getting lost or disoriented in familiar places
- Repeats the same stories or phrases in a conversation
- Increased trouble making decisions and may behave in socially inappropriate ways
What Causes Memory Loss and Forgetfulness?
It’s typically a combination of factors that lead to memory loss over time. There are four main biological theories but lifestyle factors also play a major role.
Generally, the same habits that increase the risk of chronic diseases are risk factors for cognitive decline earlier in life. These include smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, a poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle.
Other factors that may contribute to memory problems include:
- Vitamin and/or mineral deficiencies
- Severe depression
- Heavy metal or parasite toxicity
- Lyme disease and other environmental causes
The first biological mechanism of memory loss involves telomeres. Repetitive regions of DNA at the end of chromosomes, telomeres help prevent chromosomal instability. Research suggests that chronic inflammation and oxidative stress can lead to telomere shortening, which is associated with increased aging and cognitive decline. In fact, many people with Alzheimer’s have noticeably shortened telomeres.
In addition, it’s suggested that a region of the brain involved in the formation and retrieval of facts and memories called the hippocampus naturally declines with age. Yet, healthy lifestyle factors can largely prevent this, hardly warranting it as a natural part of aging.
As one ages, hormones and proteins that protect and repair brain cells and stimulate new neural pathways tend to decline. This means implementing a healthy lifestyle and doing activities that spare these hormones and proteins is vital.
Finally, elderly folk may experience less blood flow and thus oxygen and nutrients to the brain. This can inherently impair memory and cause cognitive changes, but can also be mostly prevented with intentional effort.
Although the above are the leading theories, lifestyle factors simply can’t be undermined. Beyond diet, exercise, sleep, and hydration, maintaining meaningful relationships and a sense of purpose is paramount for memory and cognitive function in general. Community and a sense of belonging genuinely help keep the brain sharp and wise!
Tips to Prevent Age-Related Memory Loss
While some physiological and mental decline isn’t concerning, it’s also not inevitable. In fact, plenty of people maintain high cognitive function throughout adulthood through healthy lifestyle habits. Even more promising, the brain is capable of producing new brain cells at any age!
But maintaining cognitive abilities requires practice and effort. Do the following to stay sharp:
- Consume an anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense diet balanced in carbs, fat, and protein
- Exercise regularly and include some strength and cardio
- Consistently get 8-9 hours of quality sleep/night
- Stay hydrated with water and minerals like potassium, sodium, magnesium, and calcium
- Regularly engage in enjoyable activities
- Join a social club, circle, or support group
- Participate in local, community, or volunteer events
- Do puzzles, crosswords, sudoku, or other word and number games that challenge the mind
- Spend time outdoors in the fresh air
- Meditate, journal, or practice other grounding techniques
- Manage stress effectively
- Stop smoking and/or drinking excessive alcohol
- Take on new projects or tasks
- Read challenging books, articles, magazines, and newspapers
- Never stop learning!
The Bottom Line
Many older adults experience some cognitive decline, sometimes called age-related memory loss. This is normal but not inevitable and doesn’t meaningfully interfere with daily life.
On the other hand, mild cognitive impairment and dementia do interfere with daily life. Those with dementia often need a caretaker as these folks can become a danger to themselves and others.
Several theories aim to explain why age-associated cognitive decline occurs. As mentioned, though, it’s largely preventable through a nutrient-dense diet, regular exercise, good sleep, and maintaining meaningful relationships.
A solid sense of well-being and having a sense of purpose in life also help maintain sharp cognitive function.
The Differences Between Normal Aging and Dementia. Alzheimer Society of Canada. https://alzheimer.ca/en/about-dementia/do-i-have-dementia/differences-between-normal-aging-dementia.
Hochstrasser T, et al. Telomere Length Is Age-Dependent and Reduced in Monocytes of Alzheimer Patients. Experimental Gerontology. Volume 47, Issue 2, 2012. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exger.2011.11.012.
Melinda Smith, Robinson L, Segal R. Age-Related Memory Loss. Help Guide. Updated August 2021.https://www.helpguide.org/articles/alzheimers-dementia-aging/age-related-memory-loss.htm. Memory Problems: What Is Normal Aging and What Is Not? Cleveland Clinic. Reviewed May 14, 2019. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11826-memory-problems-what-is-normal-aging-and-what-is-not.