We’ve all experienced that moment where we go to find our keys and can’t remember where we last placed them. Or, we see a familiar actor in a movie and can’t recall their name, even though it’s on the tip of our tongue.
These kind of memory lapses are completely normal and something that people often experience in their everyday lives, particularly those over the age of 40. This will also increase as we age – one in 10 people aged 60 to 70 experience some mild cognitive impairment, and for those over 70, it’s one in five.
Professor Kaarin Anstey is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Scientia Professor at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), and a Senior Principal Research Scientist at NeuRA. She is also Director of the UNSW Ageing Futures Institute.
Anstey says memory lapses like those described above don’t tend to impact a person’s daily life and resolve very quickly. In contrast, the sort of memory loss that occurs in Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias actually impact a person’s brain function, and those memory losses don’t resolve.
‘These issues may cause problems with you following complex instructions, you may forget names of family members which would not be normal, or you can get disoriented in a familiar place. We hear examples occasionally of a person driving into a petrol station and then forgetting how to fill up your car with petrol; you just can’t remember what you’re meant to do – that’s not a normal type of memory problem,’ she tells Wellbeing by Teacher.
Anstey says that the biggest factor that influences memory aging and cognitive decline is your age. ‘But, people who have had any type of neurological problem, like a head injury or other neurological diseases, may be at increased risk of memory loss, too,’ she adds.
How the brain changes as we age
Anstey says our brains shrink as we age. It’s a process called brain atrophy -brain scans of healthy people of different ages show that on average, people’s brain size decreases over time.
‘We can also develop some of the pathology that causes Alzheimer’s disease, and we can also have some vascular changes, things like silent strokes and microbleeds.
‘This is quite a difficult area because some people actually have quite a lot of change in their brain but it doesn’t affect their memory, so there’s not a 1:1 correlation between brain aging and your memory and cognition. It’s an area in which there is a lot of research focus, because it seems that some people have a lot more cognitive reserve and can sustain quite a bit of damage before there’s any impact on them.’
Lifestyle factors and the brain
Lifestyle factors like nutrition, physical activity and cognitive engagement all impact how our brain ages. Anstey says having a healthy lifestyle can reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
‘Having a healthier lifestyle by maintaining your weight in a healthy range, being physically active, (meeting the national guidelines of 150 minutes a week of moderate activity and a couple of sessions of strength training or resistance training), and having a Mediterranean-style diet with some of the neuro-protective foods like berries and fish, leafy green vegetables and olive oil – those things are all going to reduce the risk of cognitive decline.’
Anstey says that while most dementia occurs in people in their 80s, it’s important for young people to recognise that what they do in their 20s does have an impact on how their brains will function in the future. ‘I think it’s a really important issue because it does make an impact what you do in your 20s but it’s a silent impact.’
She says other factors like smoking and high levels of alcohol consumption can impact your cognitive decline, as well as head injuries through contact sport.
‘People recover in their 20s and think they’re fine but they actually have an increased risk of dementia in late life if they’ve had a head injury,’ she says. ‘And again, exercise and healthy dietary patterns set your whole body up for reduced risk of other chronic diseases which often occur in middle age and then that reduces your risk of dementia in late life.’
Tips for boosting capacity for recall
Anstey says, on a general level, staying cognitively active is good for your brain. She explains it’s not about simply doing things that you know how to do over and over again, but rather challenging your brain to do novel things and actively strive for life long learning. This could be something like learning a new language.
‘When someone has some mild memory problems, there are memory strategies that people can learn like using mnemonics or using lists, structuring information, that they can be used in their daily life, that will help them with their recall and memory.’
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