Memory Changes in Older Adults: What the Research Shows

September 15, 2020 | BY PHS Staff

Everyone’s brains change as they get older, but perhaps not in as many drastic ways as we assume. Psychologists who have researched the normal changes of aging show us that while some aspects of memory and processing do change as people get on in years, simple behavior changes can help them remain sharp for as long as possible, according to the American Psychological Association.

Memory loss to some degree is an inevitable part of aging. But with the right exercises, Alzheimer’s care services, and behavioral changes, individuals can stay on their mental toes well into their 80s and beyond.

That being said, Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-related conditions such as dementia, are very real because they are progressive diseases that destroy memory and other important mental functions. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll talk about normal memory changes in older adults.

Typical Changes

Yes, researchers are still trying to piece together what happens in a healthy aging brain. After all, the brain is a complex organ, seemingly with secrets it still has yet to reveal. But what they can do is use their research to explain some typical changes that occur.

But first, in order to understand what happens on the outside, it’s critical to understand what happens on the inside. The brain’s volume reaches its peaks in your early 20s and gradually declines for the rest of your life. In your 40s, you’ll start to notice subtle changes in your ability to recall new names or perform more than one task at a time. This is because your cortex is starting to shrink.

Other key areas of the brain also show some subtle changes. Your nerve cells start to shrink or atrophy, with a big reduction in how extensive the connections among neurons are. A normally aging brain puts out lower blood flow and becomes less efficient at spurring different areas into action.

As the brain changes, so too does your behavior. Because of that drop in blood flow in the frontal cortex, many people experience declines in verbal fluency, or the ability to come up with just the right words to express themselves. You may also find yourself working harder to plan or organize activities, which is referred to as “executive function.” The parietal cortex is the next to go, impacting construction and visuomotor performance. The medial temporal area will slow down as well, affecting your ability to make new long-term memories and think more flexibly.

That said, researchers are refuting the theory that as people age, they spiral into a general mental decline. They have come to their conclusions using neuroimaging and highly sensitive psychological tests. Rather, they have developed a model of specific deficits that display vastly different rates of decline that vary widely among individuals. They have also suspected that middle-aged sensitivities regarding memory loss may be highlighted by comparisons with youthful performance. It’s more realistic, in fact, to compare a person’s performance with other healthy age-matched peers instead.

So, what can be done for older adults who display signs of memory problems?

Use it or Lose It

The brain has the ability to produce new brain cells at any age, so significant memory loss does not have to be an inevitable result of aging. But just as with muscle strength, you must use it or lose it, points out HelpGuide.

Here are some ways to compensate for memory loss:

  • Stay social. Those who don’t remain socially engaged with family and friends have a higher risk for memory problems than those with stronger social ties.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking raises your risk of vascular disorders that cause stroke and constrict arteries responsible for delivering oxygen to the brain.
  • Manage stress. The stress hormone cortisol damages the brain over time, resulting in memory problems. When you are anxious or stressed out, you may suffer memory lapses more frequently, marked by difficulty learning or concentrating. Employ simple stress management techniques to keep these harmful effects at bay.
  • Get enough sleep. Getting enough ZZZs is critical for memory consolidation, which is when you form and store new memories so you are able to retrieve them later. Sleep deprivation bars new neurons from growing in the hippocampus, causing problems with memory, decision making and concentration.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, as well as drink green tea. These items are rich in antioxidants, which help boost memory.
  • Exercise regularly. Introducing a regimen of cardio and strength training can reduce your risk of getting dementia by up to 50 percent.

For more ideas on how to keep your brain active, read our list of memory exercises to keep seniors’ minds sharp.

Contact Preferred HealthStaff

Here at Preferred HealthStaff, our caregivers are certified and trained in Alzheimer’s in home care. Their training in memory-related disorders is on top of the training and certification they get for other health issues. To learn more about our Alzheimer’s home care, please contact us toll free at 866-943-9791 or in Fairfield 717-642-8500.