The brain is a storehouse of information. Information is stored in different parts of your memory. Information stored in the short-term memory may include the name of a person you met moments ago. Information stored in recent memory may include what you ate for breakfast. Information stored in the remote memory includes things you stored in your memory years ago, such as memories of childhood.
How does ageing change the brain?
Beginning when you are in your 20s, you begin to lose brain cells a few at a time. Your body also starts to make less of the chemicals your brain cells need to work. The older you are, the more these changes can affect your memory.
Ageing may affect your memory by changing the way your brain stores information and by making it harder to recall stored information. Your short-term and remote memories are not usually affected by ageing. But your recent memory may be affected. You may forget names of people you have met recently.
What about when I know a word but cannot recall it?
This is usually just a glitch in your memory. You will almost always remember the word with time. This may become more common as you age. It can be very frustrating, but it is not usually serious.
What are some other causes of memory problems?
Many things other than ageing can cause memory problems. These include depression, other illnesses, dementia (severe problems with memory and thinking, such as Alzheimer’s disease), side-effects of drugs, strokes, a head injury and alcoholism.
How can I tell if my memory problems are serious?
A memory problem is serious when it affects your daily living. If you sometimes forget names, you are probably okay. But you may have a more serious problem if you have trouble remembering how to do things you have done many times before, getting to a place you have been too often, or doing things that use steps, like following a recipe.
Another difference between normal memory problems and dementia is that normal memory loss does not get much worse over time. Dementia gets much worse over several months to several years.
It may be hard to figure out on your own if you have a serious problem. Talk to your family doctor about any concerns you have. Your doctor may be able to help you if your memory problems are caused by a medicine you’re taking or by depression.
How does Alzheimer’s disease change memory?
Alzheimer’s disease starts by changing the recent memory. At first, a person with Alzheimer’s disease will remember even small details of his or her distant past but not be able to remember recent events or conversations.
Over time, the disease affects all parts of the memory. Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal part of ageing and it is less common than some people think. Only 10 percent of people over age 65 have Alzheimer’s disease, but this number increases to nearly 50 percent of people over age 85.
Memory problems that are not part of normal ageing:
- Forgetting things much more often than you used to
- Forgetting how to do things you have done many times before
- Trouble learning new things
- Repeating phrases or stories in the same conversation
- Trouble making choices or handling money
- Not being able to keep track of what happens each day
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