The Effects of Aging on Memory

Memory is not a static process. The synapses between your brain cells are constantly changing with new memories or the recall of old memories, such as specific names to faces or the memory of how to drive a car. As memories are reinforced, the synapses –or connections—between your brain cells become reinforced as well. Essentially, this means that the stronger the synapses between your cells, the stronger your ability to retrieve memories stored in your brain.

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As you age, however, these synapses begin to become weaker. This process usually begins in your 20s and becomes significantly noticeable for many people when they are in their 50s and 60s. Typically, people begin to notice that certain facts—such as fitting certain names to particular faces, or remembering information or dates—becomes more difficult. For example, someone might approach another person in their work office but not be able to remember their name, despite the fact that they know that they recognize the person and should remember their name. This type of incident is generally an indication that the synapses between the cells which contain this information have begun to weaken, meaning that it is difficult for the brain to retrieve that information and then relay it to the appropriate part of the brain for use.

Researchers on the affects that aging has on memory generally agree that the older someone gets, the more difficult it is for them to retrieve memories. There are several theories as to why, exactly, this occurs. It is known that the brain itself shrinks as you age, which means that the brain itself becomes less efficient. This is not, however, the only natural process which can affect memories as people age. The most popular theory regarding aging’s natural effect on memory among brain researchers is that aging actually causes cell loss in a small region in the front of the brain which houses the cholinergic system. The cell loss in this area then leads to a decrease, or drop, in the production of a specific neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is an important neurotransmitter which, when decreased in the brain, has been associated with certain memory deficits, including general memory loss in the elderly and even symptoms which are similar to those found in Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition to a decrease in acetylcholine, other areas of the brain associated with memory also begin to decline during the aging process. The hippocampus, for example, loses around 5% of its nerve cells during a decade. This means that around 20% of the hippocampus’ nerve cells have been lost by the time someone is in their 80s. And because the hippocampus is primarily responsible for consolidating short-term memories into long-term memories, the loss of nerve cells in this area can lead to long-term information—such as remembering how to drive or cook—being difficult to remember.

However, it is not only the natural aging process which has an impact on memory as people age. Many factors can influence the how fast memory loss occurs, what type of memory loss occurs, and how much memory loss occurs in the brain as an individual ages. The most commonly experienced factors which can negatively influence memory loss during aging are the abuse of alcohol and drugs, both of which can lead to quicker memory loss due to a decrease in brain cells, especially those in areas which are associated with memory and memory recall. Other factors which can negatively impact memory loss during the aging process include the ingestion of poison or other chemicals which harm the brain, exposure to certain chemicals, or brain injuries.

Both natural processes which occur during aging and outside factors, such as abusing alcohol, can cause memory loss and other memory problems as people age. Significant memory loss, however, is not an inevitable conclusion of becoming older. Research has shown that some specific abilities, such as driving cars or other actions which involve multi-tasking to a significant degree, tend to become more difficult as people become older because the parts of the brain responsible for recalling this necessary information are usually more affected than other areas of the brain. But this memory loss does not usually affect the brain as a whole. For example, a study on the performance of people in their 70s versus people in their 20s in certain cognitive tests found that both people in their 70s and their 20s performed similarly well; in fact, the participants in their 70s achieved higher scores in verbal cognitive tests than their younger counterparts.

Memory loss or problems in the elderly can even be lessened or reversed in most cases. Several studies done on participants living in nursing-home populations found that patients who experienced memory loss made significant improvements in their condition when they were tasked with rewards for memory related tasks and when they were challenged with memory related tasks. Current research indicates that these challenges and rewards can actually help reinforce the weakened synapses in the brain which may have led to the memory loss in the first place.

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Research shrinking and, in some cases, even increase the size of the brain. A study on a rat population found that rats that lived in environments which were enriched with toys, challenges, and other stimulation had larger brains than rats that lived in an environment without a significant amount of stimulation. Additionally, the rats that lived in an enriched environment were found to have more dendrites in their brain–dendrites allow their brain cells to communicate with each other, in a manner similar to human brain synapses. This research is particularly important for nursing homes and other assisted-living facilities, where staff are in a position to provide a stimulating, enriched environment for its community to improve overall mental health for everyone living there. And while memory loss will occur naturally, it can be lessened and it can be improved by ensuring that people, as they age, are exposed to a challenging environment that will keep their brains active and healthy.

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