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Does everybody lose their memory in the end?

A little bit of cognitive decline is normal as we age, but that doesn’t mean memory loss is inevitable 

In a nutshell

While complete memory loss isn’t inevitable for everyone, a certain degree of cognitive decline and a slowing of the memory processes is extremely common. The key is distinguishing between memory loss – that is, not being able to remember large amounts of facts or history – and memory slowness – which can see you struggling to dredge up names, facts or dates, but largely managing to remember most things.

Memory changes

Your brain is at its peak, in terms of volume and ability, in your 20s, and then begins to very gradually decline for the rest of your life. This is because the brain gets a lower amount of blood flow, which can reduce the number of connections within it.

However, researchers are agreed that simply saying, our brain ‘gets slower’ as we age, is almost too simplistic. Using neuroimaging and psychological tests, they have realised that different areas of the brain decline at very different rates, and this can also depend on each individual and the lifestyle they lead.

Episodic memories decline the most and semantic and procedural memories decline the least. This is because there are changes in the way we encode and retrieve memories as we get older. This can affect our ability to remember names and dates. But even with these changes, you’re still able to learn new things and store in long-term memory even in old age. The difference is that it’s not as easy as when as you were younger. Fewer messages get through and fewer connections are made, with your brain having to work harder. It’s why you soak up facts like a sponge when you’re young, but it gets harder to learn new things as you age.

Researchers have also identified things that can impair memory production as we get older. These include long-term exposure to stress and anxiety and a genetic history.

The good news about memory

Scientists are agreed on one thing. Steps can be taken to keep older brains fit and better able to remember things.

Whether that’s through the food we eat or through changes to our lifestyle it is possible to make positive changes for our memory.

Plus, if you can view memory change as a collection of subtle, small changes, which in most people won’t affect daily life, it can help to reduce the often depressing stereotype that you ‘lose it’ as you get older.

Instead, relax about any memory changes and accept that you may need to rely on to-do lists and organised living spaces a bit more as you get older to support your changing memory. Use mnemonics, routines and visualisation as compensation for any memory changes, maintain a healthy lifestyle and keep up mental (activities) and social stimuli (friends and family) as much as possible and you will be taking positive steps to keeping your brain and memory healthy.