More so than any physical transformation, memory loss is one of the most severe consequences of aging. Aging at its core, affects how information is processed in the brain. Older people are often told that they are slow – in thought and in movement. While it is true that it may be more difficult to move, see, or hear as people age, people are surprised to learn that their senses are also slower and continue to slow down as they age.
Changes in memory storage and retrieval
According to Dr. Mark E. Williams, changes in memory storage and retrieval of information occur for all age groups as human beings mature and age. Over time however, recall gets worse. Recall involves the searching and retrieving of factual information.
The three M’s
There are three types of memory loss associated with aging: age-related cognitive decline, mild cognitive impairment, and dementia.
- Age-related cognitive decline: As we age, we experience a decline in cognitive capacity. In this stage, the loss of memory is gradual and normal. Bouts of forgetfulness, inability to focus, and changes to problem solving ability are the key indicators that cognitive decline has commenced. As quickly as these symptoms appear, they disappear for a time only to return and continue to plague the individual until the end of his or her life. Individuals with age-related cognitive decline can live on their own and may recall tasks like attending a doctor’s appointment or taking medication without being prompted by someone else.
- Mild cognitive impairment: The next step in cognitive decline is called mild cognitive impairment or MCI for short. In this stage the cognitive decline (memory and thinking skills) is noticeable and measurable by a doctor. The impairment may become permanent at this stage. Returning to our example above, individuals with MCI may always need to be reminded to take daily their medications because they have forgotten that they need to perform this task daily. Once reminded however, individuals are able to take their own medications and distinguish among them without assistance.
- Dementia: The most severe type of age-related cognitive decline is dementia. The memory loss and diminished thinking skills are permanent and interfere with an individual’s day-to-day activities. Assistance is needed daily with any aspect of an individual’s activities that are affected by the disorder. Completing tasks such as bathing, taking medication, keeping doctor’s appointments, or brushing one’s hair, are almost impossible without the assistance of another person to remind and perform the task depending on the severity of the memory loss. This is also a chronic condition that through time gets worse. There is no cure or medication available to stop or repair cognitive decline.
Changes to brain function as you age
Neurons are the foundation to our nervous system and consist of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. The nervous system’s function is to transmit information. Neurons are cells. Although cells reproduce or regenerate, neurons do not. As human beings mature and age, their neurons die. Because they cannot reproduce or regenerate, whatever information that neuron transmitted becomes lost forever.
If you or a loved one is experiencing cognitive decline, see a medical doctor for diagnosis and treatment.