ISLAMABAD: Some mild forgetfulness is a normal part of aging. But when does this occasional absentmindedness become something we should be concerned about? And are there measures we can take to minimize or even prevent those episodes? Medical News Today spoke to experts about how to recognize the differences between normal memory lapses and neurocognitive issues, such as dementia, and looked at research into how we might keep our aging brains alert.
We all forget things sometimes. Who among us has not mislaid their keys or phone, or struggled to locate their car in a car park?As we age, our brains change, and these memory lapses seem to become more frequent. But is memory loss a normal part of aging?According to the National Institute on AgingTrusted Source (NIA), many older adults worry about their memory, but taking longer to learn new skills and occasionally forgetting details are usually not serious age-related memory problems.
And although normal brain aging may mean slower processing speeds and more trouble multitasking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adviseTrusted Source that routine memory, skills, and knowledge are stable and may even improve with age.
Normal aging vs. memory impairment
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, normal aging leads to most of the following, which people usually start to notice from their 40s or 50s:
• becoming a little more forgetful
• taking a bit longer to remember things
• getting distracted more easily
• finding it harder to do several things at once.
Although this may be frustrating, for most people, it is a natural part of aging, and it is not a sign of dementia.
However, around 40%Trusted Source of people aged 65 and over do have some age-associated memory impairment. But of these, only 1% will progress to develop a form of dementia.Speaking to Medical News Today, Dr. Emer MacSweeney, CEO and consultant neuroradiologist at Re:Cognition Health, advised that people should not regard age-related memory loss as inevitable.
“It’s not normal to develop cognitive issues and short-term memory loss as we get older. As everyone knows, lots of elderly people do not develop this problem,” she said.
And Dr. Miriam Weber, clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor of neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, agreed:
“Many cognitive functions change across the entire lifespan, not just in older adulthood. Memory — learning new information and holding on to that information over time — may decline slightly beginning when one is in their 60s (usually later 60s), with perhaps more notable declines in the 70s and 80s.”
“However, this is based on group averages, and not everyone experiences this decline. There are also groups of people — sometimes called “super agers” — who are in their 80s or older, who show cognitive performance comparable to middle-aged adults,” she added.
Those more frequent memory lapses as we age are not necessarily a sign of any cognitive impairment, added Dr. MacSweeney.“When we are more relaxed and not rising to challenges at work every day, we may not concentrate with the same level of focus and effort, and therefore not be so energetic about remembering details of events and conversations,” she explained.“Also, as people develop problems with hearing and eyesight they may actually miss items of conversation and ‘appear’ not to have remembered,” Dr. MacSweeney continued.
Hearing problems may not just cause people to appear not to have remembered — a new studyTrusted Source suggests that treating hearing loss with hearing aids might reduce the risk of developing dementia by up to 19%. This study adds to the growing evidence of a link between hearing loss and cognitive impairment.
A healthy diet and lifestyle
Keeping physically healthy can help protect against memory loss and dementia. The NIATrusted Source recommends regular aerobic exercise, and a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
In addition, getting the right amount of sleep, socializing, minimizing stress, and keeping health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes under control will help reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
Dr. MacSweeney reiterated this advice:
“It has been shown that as a population we can reduce risk of cognitive impairment due to Alzheimer’s by adhering to healthy lifestyle habits including exercise, diet (Mediterranean diet high in fish oils) and keep[ing] sugar intake low — the brain hates sugar. High levels of mental and social activity. The brain needs to be exercised just like our bodies to stay in good condition. Avoid excess alcohol and smoking.”
A new studyTrusted Source has also highlighted the importance of vitamin D in preserving cognitive function. In this study of postmortem brains, the brains of people with higher cognitive function before death contained higher levels of vitamin D.
The researchers found that although the higher levels of vitamin D were associated with up to 33% lower odds of dementia symptoms, they were not associated with any decrease in post-mortem dementia neuropathologyTrusted Source.Therefore, they could not suggest a mechanism for the potentially protective effect of vitamin D, or show a causative link.They advised that ensuring you get sufficient vitamin D from sunlight and from foods such as oily fish might be beneficial. However, they warned against taking high doses of the vitamin to try and prevent dementia, as this can cause other health problems.
Exercise the brain
“Engaging in cognitively stimulating activities is also beneficial. We also know that depression and anxiety can negatively impact cognition, so it is important to treat those conditions if present. Maintaining social connections, engaging in meaningful activities, and exercising also help mood, which in turn, can impact cognition. It is not only your body that benefits from exercise, keeping the brain exercised can help preserve your mental abilities well into older age.”
– Dr. Miriam Weber
Although keeping active and engaged as you age may not prevent dementia, mentally stimulating activities, such as volunteering, reading, playing games, or learning new skills could help lower the riskTrusted Source.Doing word games, such as crosswords, has long been advocated in the popular press as a means of keeping yourself sharp, but until recently, there has been little evidenceTrusted Source in peer-reviewed journals.Now, a new study published in NEJM Evidence has demonstrated their efficacy in a small group of people with MCI.
The participants, who had an average age of 71, and some degree of mild cognitive impairment, did either intensive crossword puzzle training or intensive cognitive games training on a computer for 12 weeks. They continued with booster sessions to 78 weeks.At 78 weeks, crossword puzzles had improved both a primary cognitive outcome measure (ADAS-Cog) and a measure of daily functioning more than cognitive games. More strikingly, brain shrinkage — measured using MRITrusted Source — was less in those who did the crossword training.