Forget Me Nots: What happens to our memory with age

“Memories and thoughts age, just as people do. But certain thoughts can never age, and certain memories can never fade.”
― Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

We are delving into the last piece of the “normal” aging series. Item number 5 relates to memory concerns. Asking ourselves the question… is losing your memory a normal part of the aging process? First we discuss the different types of memory. It is a complicated thing! Then we discuss what happens as we get older to our memory.

Let’s dive in

“My memory isn’t what it used to be”
“What was I saying?”
“Where are my keys?”

Memory is an incredible and yet terrifying thing. From watching a little baby figure out the world around her to seeing the decline of a person suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, the pure scope and magnitude of a person’s memory is incredible. If you really think about all of the things that you do day-to-day that require at least some component of memory, it really is mind boggling.

Alzheimer’s and dementia have been getting more attention in the last couple of years and for good reason. The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada estimated that, in 2011, almost 750,000 Canadians suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) or another form of dementia. In total that is almost 15% of Canadians over the age of 65. That is a huge number.

Estimates say that if nothing changes, this can increase to 1.4 million by 2031. The United States and other countries worldwide have similar statistics.

It’s a big deal.

But I think we also need to tease apart what is a normal part of the aging process (because we do see some decreases with age) and what is part of a disease state or dementia.

medical-1Memory: a term with many different types 
Memory can range from remember how to walk to remembering your wedding anniversary to reciting the 50 US states for a geography test. Memory is most easily thought of as anything that requires you to learn, remember, and recall. All three of these pieces are important and people can have difficulties in memory at each of these stages.

I will try to explain a very big field of research as clearly as I can. When we think about learning new things, that is how a memory starts to be formed. It is like studying for a test, we are trying to learn the information. But it isn’t just about learning it, you need to remember it. This is also known as storage of memories. Once a memory is formed, it is stored. First in short-term memory, and then if it makes it, to long-term memory. Now that the memory is stored, we have to be able to call on that information when we need it. This is known as recall. Scientists have been able to tease apart these parts of memory through different animal models, as well as through persons who have had accidents resulting in very specific parts of memory being affected.

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On top of this, memory is often divided into many different things. Problem solving, making connections between things (like apples and oranges are both fruit), paying attention, thinking abstractly (for example being able to understand sayings like the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree), and recognizing objects when you see them are just a few. What research is starting to see is that different aspects of memory are affected naturally as we get older.%22NORMAL%22

Memory is also difficult to study because memory is based on the experiences we have and the things we do throughout our lifetime. That means there is a HUGE amount of variability on knowledge and memory for individuals in older age. Education level, socioeconomic status, gender are a few of the factors that affect memory. As well, 60% of our memory and knowledge is the result of our genetics (you can thank mom and dad for that or not!).
But somehow researchers have started to tease some of these things apart and figure out what happens with age and what is part of a disease course such as AD.

I’m not a spring chicken: Memory changes with age
There is a couple of things that I want to explain before I delve into what IS normal changes in memory as we get older.

Decrease in memory ≠Dementia or Alzheimers
Getting older ≠  losing your memory

That being said, the odds of getting Alzheimer’s and dementia increases with age and we do have changes to our memory that are normal parts of the aging process.

I’m not a spring chicken is a saying I like because when we get older, our PROCESSING SPEED goes down. What that means is that the time it takes to make connections or answer questions asked to us can be a bit more delayed. Have you ever gotten frustrated at a loved one for taking forever to answer? Did you know that sometimes, especially when we’re in our 70s, 80s, 90s, it is not that a person is ignoring you, they just need a little bit more time to answer? I know for me, I got told that I talk too fast! The person that I was talking to just couldn’t process what I was saying fast enough to be able to answer me. This was AMAZING feedback because it’s something that is easy to adjust and allowed me to communicate better.

As we get older it becomes harder for us to learn new skills. I think many people can relate to even how easy it is for a child to learn a new language compared to an adult. This trend continues as we get older and so learning new skills takes longer. Our retention (or storage) of memories stays the same. It’s all there! The difficulty comes because our able to retrieve that information isn’t quite the same as it was.

So losing track of names and sayings like “where did I meet that person again?” are questions that unfortunately get more common with age!

Attention to the finer things, more of a challenge as we get older.
Attention relates to our ability to focus. On a task, on a person that is talking to us, to what we need to do that day. As a society, I think we are getting worse at this with all of the things that can easily grab our attention, oh Facebook! But that is a topic of a whole separate discussion.

Two types of attention get worse as we get older: selective attention and divided attention. Divided attention is our ability to multi-task. Walking and talking can be an example of multi-tasking because our brain needs to focus on doing two things at once. As we get older we are less capable. This is an interesting point because sometimes it can be the reason for a fall – we just try to do too much at once!

The other type of attention that gets worse is selective attention. This is the ability to pay attention to just one thing when there are a lot of other things going on around you. So when you are in a crowd and you’re trying to talk to a friend of yours in their 80s, it’s a BIG challenge and we should probably be a little bit more understanding of that. For my clinicians in the audience, how about a crowded hospital ….?

The amount of decline that we can see in our memory is EXTREMELY variable and as always, there are things we can do to stave that off!

“One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory.”
― Rita Mae Brown

Back to the pillars of prevention
One of the important things that the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada said in their projection was “if we do nothing…” then the rate of dementia and AD will go up.

If… we…do… nothingProtect yourself

Fortunately there is a lot of work being done into how we can stave off signs of dementia, slow the progression of cognitive impairment once it has shown up and overall prevent it from happening in the first place.

If we go back to the STAVE OFF Pillars, a couple of them also help with the progression of dementia. Exercise of both the body and the mind are two of the strongest ways to keep you sharp into older age. Doing puzzles and getting higher levels of education (it doesn’t have to be formal education!) have been shown to improve memory, slow down rate of memory decline, and be protective against developing Alzheimer’s or dementia. Physical activity has the same effects. It keeps your mind sharp! I know for me when I’m exercising consistently, I just feel more focussed. My body doesn’t like to be stagnant, it makes my mind that way so exercise being protective just makes sense to me! The other protective factors are quality relationships – staying engaged with your family and with your community. Join a club, a gym, a book club, the Seniors Association (we are members of the Seniors Association in Kingston you should check them out if you’re from the area!) – there’s just so many opportunities!

Conclusion? Some decline in memory is normal, it doesn’t mean you have dementia! It also doesn’t mean that you’re going to get it either!

Keep to the pillars, they’ll help you!


Falck, R. S., Davis, J. C., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2016). What is the association between sedentary behaviour and cognitive function? A systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, doi:bjsports-2015-095551 [pii]

Huang, P., Fang, R., Li, B. Y., & Chen, S. D. (2016). Exercise-related changes of networks in aging and mild cognitive impairment brain. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 8, 47. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2016.00047 [doi]

Seib, D. R., & Martin-Villalba, A. (2015). Neurogenesis in the normal ageing hippocampus: A mini-review. Gerontology, 61(4), 327-335. doi:10.1159/000368575 [doi]

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Christina Prevett

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