The Science of Memory & Aging

Both body and mind tend to regress with age. The rate will differ from one person to another based on genetics, lifestyle, and other pertinent factors. Most people are able to carry on with life independently while others require care because of mental decline. To gain an understanding of memory loss, why it occurs and who it affects, it’s important to know the basics associated with memory loss and aging. The infographic below will provide you with insights into how and why memory loss occurs and how to cope with it.

Related program: B.A in Psychology

UF Online Infographic: The Science of Memory and Aging

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Memory Loss in the US

Studies have tried to quantify the extent of memory loss in the U.S. As it turns out, a large number of people suffer from it in one form or another. More than half of those surveyed said that they have trouble remembering names and about a third admit to forgetting the birthday of friends and family. Roughly, 13% of Americans above the age of 60 report an increase in confusion and forgetfulness.

The number of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease has been growing steadily. 5.3 million individuals have the condition as per the latest figures and the overwhelming majority are people over 65 years old with 3.2 million women and 1.9 million men affected. Only 0.2 million individuals are under 65, providing a clear picture of old age as a risk factor. One in every nine Americans over 65 suffer from this disease though early onset Alzheimer’s has been known to affect people in their 40s. If the projection holds, there will be 13 million Americans with the condition by 2050.

Normal Memory Loss and Cognitive Decline Patterns

It is normal for memory to fade and cognition to decline over the years. By our mid-20s, memory, reasoning, and comprehension will already begin to drop. Cognitive speed, the rate at which we process information, declines by approximately 1% every year starting from our 30s. Our memory is no longer as sharp as we would like it to be in our 40s and we begin to experience general cognitive decline by 60. These should be expected as we age and mild memory loss is not brought about by any underlying condition.

Aging with Alzheimer’s is different in that everything becomes worse than usual. Whereas a normal person may exhibit occasional poor decision-making, an affected person will show signs of it frequently. Other signs include the inability to manage a budget, difficulty maintaining a conversation, forgetfulness regarding the placement of objects, and the inability to keep track of time.

Possible Causes of Memory Loss

Scientists have tracked down several possible causes from food intake to emotional state. For instance, they point to a deficiency in Vitamin B12 as a culprit. This condition affects 3.2% of Americans, which is more than 10 million people. Concussions are another common reason along with traumatic brain injuries. There are 2.2 million cases of these annually. Depression can also cause havoc with memory with research suggesting that up to 12% may be lost due to this. As much as 7.2% of the population or roughly 23 million Americans suffer from depression.

Genetic mutation is theorized to be among the causes of normal decline. A certain protein strand called RbAp48 has been isolated as a trigger. Dehydration is another possible cause, as the brain needs water to function correctly. Going without hydration for just 4 hours could already be detrimental with longer periods having a bigger impact. Poor sleeping habits must be adjusted, as the body needs ample sleep to function properly. Getting less than 5 hours a night will not only lead to poor recall but also trigger the creation of false memories.

Tips for Maintaining Memory

A number of things can keep the mind sharp. Chocolate lovers will rejoice because cocoa has flavanols that can lead to a 25% increase in recall performance with daily consumption. Physical activity at a rate of 120 minutes per week of moderate intensity has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and verbal memory. Being sedentary has the opposite effect with obese persons exhibiting hippocampus shrinkage at a faster rate than normal. Meditation is another good way to increase concentration and retention. Finally, older persons should try to interact with a bigger social network to avoid cognitive decline.

When to Seek Professional Help

Memory loss should not be dismissed as a typical sign of old age. There may be a more serious issue at fault, like Alzheimer’s Disease, which should be diagnosed immediately so that it can be addressed and properly treated. Seek professional help if the problem escalates to the point that is disrupts daily life. Confusion with time or place, withdrawal from work or social activities, difficulty speaking or writing, and trouble understanding visual images are signals that medical intervention has become necessary.