Are you always forgetting where you put your keys and purse? And do you rush to put appointments in your diary before you forget all about them? If so, you’re not alone! A 2014 study of 18,500 people aged 18 to 99, conducted by Gallup and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), found that 20% had memory issues. Yet while problems were predictably more pronounced among older adults, they were by no means confined to this group. In fact, 14% of those with memory issues were classed as young adults compared with 22% who were middle-aged and 26% who were older.
According to the Gallup and UCLA researchers, increased multitasking, thanks to modern technology and the internet, affects our attention span and ability to focus. But is forgetfulness just a normal by-product of modern life – or is it more complex? Interestingly, the researchers also identified depression, physical inactivity, and smoking, among other things, as contributing factors to memory loss that can affect people at all ages.
So what can we do about our memory problems? And when should they be a cause for concern?
As with every health problem, there are risk factors we can change and those we can’t.
First up is age, which fits into the former category. A study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that of 60,000 participants over 59 years old, 13% had experienced ‘increased confusion or memory loss in the preceding 12 months’. This is by no means surprising as issues with memory are often a natural part of the ageing process, hence the phrase ‘having a senior moment’.
A study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that of 60,000 participants over 59 years old, 13% had experienced ‘increased confusion or memory loss in the preceding 12 months’.
As we age, our brain – much like the rest of our body – undergoes several changes to its physical and chemical make-up and, in turn, how well it performs. The hippocampus, the part responsible for memory, emotions and spatial navigation, shrinks. Receptors and neurons degenerate over time too, which can make it more difficult for different areas of the brain to communicate – often leading to problems retaining and recalling information.
Several physical and mental health conditions can play a significant role too. Depression was the strongest single risk factor for memory complaints in all age groups in the Gallup and UCLA study. This is backed up by previous research that found that it’s likely to be a contributing factor to short-term memory loss. Two similar studies, conducted in 2013 and 2015 in the US found that those with depression struggled to identify objects on a screen that were identical or similar to ones they had previously seen.
Another factor is weight. Researchers at the University of Cambridge looked at the relationship between memory and weight, in particular, and found that the higher a person’s body mass index (BMI) – weight in relation to height – the poorer they performed in a series of cognitive and memory tests. According to the researchers, this could be down to structural changes that occur in the brain in overweight or obese people.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge looked at the relationship between memory and weight, in particular, and found that the higher a person’s body mass index (BMI) – weight in relation to height – the poorer they performed in a series of cognitive and memory tests.
Over time, conditions that affect the cardiovascular system, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes can reduce blood flow to the brain, eventually impairing memory. Certain hormonal conditions may affect memory too, such as an underactive thyroid, pregnancy and the menopause, as can neurological conditions such as dementia, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, and more rarely brain tumors. Memory loss may also be a side effect of some medications.
The good news is, there’s plenty we can do to maintain and even improve memory function by reducing some of the risk factors.
Cut down the toxins: Smoking and drinking individually are bad news for memory, but a recent study by Northumbria University found that people who smoke and drink heavily on a regular basis experience greater everyday memory problems than those who either smoke or drink regularly. It’s thought that this is because the combination of tobacco smoke and alcohol can thin the brain’s cortex, which plays a vital role in information processing and memory function.
If you smoke, it makes sense to stop altogether. It may be easier said than done but it’s well worth persevering – one in two smokers will eventually die as a result of their habit, according to UK government statistics. And keep the alcohol to no more than one or two drinks in one day and numerous alcohol-free days per week.
Have a memory-friendly diet: Researchers from McMaster University in Canada followed more than 27,000 over-55s across a five-year period to examine the link between diet and cognitive decline. They found that those who ate a diet high in fruit, vegetables, nuts and protein (such as lean meat) to be up to 24% less likely to show signs of cognitive decline than those with the unhealthiest diets. Sugar may take its toll on your brain too. A 2013 study by Charité University Medical Center in Berlin found that having high glucose levels, irrespective of diabetes, was associated with poor memory. So go easy on sweet things, sugary soft drinks and refined carbs.
Get moving: When we do cardiovascular exercise – running, cycling or aerobics for instance – we release a series of chemicals in the brain, which reduces insulin resistance and nurture blood vessels and brain cells. Regular aerobic exercise has also been shown by researchers at the University of British Columbia to increase the size of the hippocampus – which can improve both verbal memory and the capacity to learn new information. Regular cardiovascular exercise is also a great mood booster and has been clinically proven to help mild to moderate depression.
Get a good night’s sleep: Harvard-affiliated researchers at a hospital in Boston found that getting seven hours of sleep per night may help maintain memory as we age. Just two hours either side of this figure was associated with decreased memory and brain function.
Address stress: Feeling stressed can have a huge impact on our brain’s ability to function, not only because it causes us to exhaust our mental capacities, but also because it triggers the release of the hormone cortisol – high levels of which were shown by a 2013 University of Basel study to impair memory recall. In addition, long-term stress can increase the risk of depression.
Mindfulness meditation is an increasingly popular technique for reducing stress. The aim is to pay attention to what you’re experiencing in the present rather than drifting into thoughts about the past or future, and without analysing or making judgments about what’s going on around you. A 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that those who engaged in this practice four days per week for at least two weeks saw improvements in both working memory and concentration.
A 2013 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that those who engaged in mindfulness meditation four days per week for at least two weeks saw improvements in both working memory and concentration.
Train your brain: While there’s currently no evidence that brain-training activities will prevent dementia, two notable studies have uncovered solid evidence that certain online brain-training activities can improve mental cognition, attention span, working memory and the ability to multitask. The first, published in 2013 in the journal Nature, found that adults aged between 60 and 85 not only became better at brain-training video games the more they played but also saw an improvement in cognitive skills not directly related to the activity. These memory improvements were recorded as long as six months after the study.
When should you worry?
In the majority of cases, problems with memory are nothing to worry about – particularly if they come on very gradually as we age. Most of the time memory issues among older people simply reflect the slower processing speed of an ageing brain rather than any serious neurological condition. Studies have shown, for example, that elderly people take around 20 to 40 milliseconds longer to complete menial tasks such as detecting gaps in circles.
Therefore, taking longer to remember and retain certain information can just be a sign that the brain is working slower rather than the information being harder to recall.
There are, however, times when a decline in memory could be a sign of a more serious problem – such as when memory loss comes on or escalates quickly, or begins to interfere with daily life. Getting an early diagnosis is important, whatever the cause. Chances are, your memory loss could be a symptom of a treatable underlying condition or issue. But even if the cause is dementia, which isn’t yet curable, early diagnosis is still important in helping you and your family to get important information, support, and practical advice. So, if you’re concerned that your memory is failing you – or you’re worried about someone else – speak to a medical professional.