Memory and Aging

Contrary to the myth that all memories are lost over time, some memories merely become harder to recall. Barring disease or injury, other memories are accessible as ever even people grow older. Although visual memory (remembering people’s faces) can degrade over time, procedural memory (how to ride a bike, how to brush our teeth) is relatively durable. Even people with early or mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease retain procedural memories. Episodic declarative memory (memory for facts and events) and spatial memory (memory for directions) also somewhat decline with age. In the early twenties, the human brain reachesits maximum size and then slowly begins to lose volume. Memory loss generally becomes evident after age 50. However, memory loss in the normal brain is qualitatively different from memory loss that characterizes Alzheimer’s disease.

 As brain structures like the frontal lobes and hippocampus change and brain cells die, the way memories are encoded, stored and retrieved also changes. Neurons that produce neurotransmitters appear to be lost in the aging brain. Some receptors—the points in neurons to which neurotransmitters attach—may also stop to function normally. It takes more time for the aging brain to absorb new information, and it becomes difficultto form new memories. Older adults may find it harder to multitask and learn new things than younger people. One animal study has shown that older mice took longer to escape from a maze compared to younger mice.

Similarly, research in humans has shown that there is a decline in the performance of older adults on memory tasks that rely on the activity of the brain’s frontal regions. These tasks include remembering events or context in which they learned the information, knowing the order in which information was learned and remembering to perform an act at a later date. These changes can be disruptive, but as long as they are not symptoms of a disease like Alzheimer’s, they should not interfere with a person’s ability to function normally.

The brain is capable of learning and retaining facts throughout life, especially for people who get frequent intellectual stimulation and regular exercise. Studies show that paying close attention to new information and repetition can counteract the slowdown of the brain. The ability to learn new concepts, such as increasing vocabulary, continues even for older adults.Still, results of memory self-evaluation suggest that compared to younger people, some older adults seem to believe that they have less control over memory, and that it is useless to do something to reverse memory loss.


For several years, scientists believed that the brain produced neurons only in early life. During adulthood, existing neurons started to die and neurogenesis stopped. In the 1970s, however, researchers found that adult rats, chickadees, marmoset monkeys and other animals continued to produce new neurons. A 1998 study of five people who had died of cancer further reinforced the idea of neurogenesis in adults. Before they died, the subjects’ brains were injected with a chemical that tracked the number of new cancer cells. Besides cancer cells, the chemical also revealed new healthy neurons produced in the hippocampus. Researchers now know that the brain produces neurons every day, but most of them die within a week. A 2006 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggested that the number of neurons in the hippocampus that survived increased in rats that learned to engage several brain areas when performing tasks. How much the rodents learned and the number of surviving cells were also directly correlated. Another study published in the same journal in 2007 showed that brain-damage mice treated with grafted stem cells recovered memory function comparable to that of healthy mice.

 Clinical Memory Tests

Memory changes due to age are different from changes caused by neurodegenerative diseases. In normal aging, the brain’s capacity to get rid of harmful chemicals is reduced and parts of the cell that produce energy decline. In diseases like Alzheimer’s, cell death is accelerated by the accumulation of harmful proteins. It is difficult to determine whether memory loss is normal or caused by disease, but age-related memory impairment is relatively mild.Older people with considerably severe cognitive impairment (compared to that seen in normal aging) but not dementia have mild cognitive impairment. MCI can be amnestic (characterized by memory problems) or non-amnestic (characterized by other cognitive problems).

Clinicians use several memory tests to differentiate normal from abnormal memory loss. Normal changes include decreased recall performance, attention and working memory function. Long-term memory and recognition are areas that show little normative change, and are an important focus for researchers who aim to identify abnormal performance patterns. Neuropsychological batteries (to assess cognitive functions), blood tests, computed tomography scan (CT scan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are generally included in a thorough clinical evaluation and used to identify cognitive problems.

 Alzheimer’s Disease

One in seven people at the age of 71 and over has dementia, while one in three people at the age of 85 suffers from the disease. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60- 80 percent of all dementia cases in the elderly. The disease is incurable, degenerative and progressive; it also becomes common as people grow older. Majority of older adults who develop symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease after age 65 have no family history of the disease, but those who develop symptoms at an early age have strong genetic predisposition. Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer’s, followed by family history, sex (women are more likely to suffer because they live longer) and lifestyle factors.

A significant number of brain cells degenerate and die in Alzheimer’s patients, causing a decline in memory function and in intellectual and social skills. Abnormal protein structures called tangles and plaques also form in the regions of the brain associated with memory processing. Other common symptoms include the inability to acquire new memories and the difficulty in recalling recent events. Experts believe that less than 5 percent of Alzheimer’s cases are caused by faulty genetic changes; this means that environmental and lifestyle factors also play a part in the development of the disease.

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