Memory Loss - What's it all about?

What exactly is memory?

Memory refers to our ability to encode, store and retrieve information in our brains. Our capacity to retain and retrieve information allows us to use our past experiences to influence our current behavior. Memory is important for learning as well as the ability to perceive continuity and change in our lives. On a cellular level, memory is related to the pattern in which our neurons receive and pass on impulses. The stronger the neural pathways are (synapses), the longer we are able to store the information as well as the quicker we are able to retrieve the information. There are three main categories of memory - sensory, short-term and long-term. Sensory memories are involuntary and last for a few seconds - sensory memories allow us to process what we sense in the world around us through our 5 senses; vision, touch, smell, taste, hearing.

Short-term memory refers to our capacity to hold onto a small amount of memory in an active, readily available state for a short amount of time. This is usually over 30 sec or so.

Long-term memory is our ability to store memories over a long period of time - usually years - and can be unconscious or conscious. Long-term memory can be stored in different parts of the brain whereas sensory and short-term are primarily created in the hippocampus.

Why do we lose our memory when we age?

One of the natural aspects of aging is memory loss. There are three main reasons we begin to lose our memory. As we age, our cells start to deteriorate due to the inability to continually divide properly. This causes our organs to start deteriorating as a whole, including our hippocampus, which is an important organ in our brains for making memories. There are some very important proteins and hormones involved in forming brain cells and ensuring their health. As we start to age, the glands that secrete these hormones slow and eventually stop, causing the further deterioration of brain cells, and in turn, memory loss.

Along with the deterioration of cells, blood flow to our brains starts to decrease with age. The lack of blood causes impairment and changes in cognitive stillness.

Losing our memory is a natural process as we grow older, however, it is important that we do not confuse natural memory loss with disease-related memory loss.

What is the difference between normal memory loss and dementia?

Normal age-related memory loss is a gradual process in which we start to find ourselves distracted more often, taking longer to recall information, and struggling more with multitasking activities.

Dementia is the name for a group of symptoms that occur when our brains are damaged by disease. The symptoms of dementia memory loss include the significant decline in a person's cognitive ability for reasoning, thinking and recalling memories.

Below is a table noting some differences between normal age-related memory loss and dementia. Please do not use this table to diagnose yourself or someone else. It is also important to note that everyone is different and the symptoms found in one person may not necessarily be found in another.

Type of Ability

Possibly symptoms of Age-Related Memory Loss

Possible symptoms of Disease-Related Memory Loss

Short-term memory and the ability to retain new information

- Occasionally forgetting something you were told

- Asking for the same information repeatedly

- Misplacing things occasionally

- Frequently putting things in unusual places. For example; putting the tv remote in the fridge

Planning and Problem-Solving

- Becoming slower to react and think things through

- Getting very confused when planning things or thinking things through

- Once in a while making poor decisions

- Frequently making poor decisions, especially when it comes to finances

Verbal Language

- Sometimes forgetting the correct words to use when talking to someone

- Frequently referring to objects as ‘that thing’ or using incorrect words instead

- Having to actively concentrate harder to follow a conversation

- Not being able to follow the thread of a conversation

Perceptual Awareness

- Sometimes forgetting why you walked into a room

- Often getting lost in familiar places

- Forgetting what day of the week, or time it is but working it out later

- Losing track of the time, day or season

When should you seek professional help?

Dementia can only be diagnosed by a qualified healthcare professional. If you fear that you or a loved one may be suffering from symptoms of dementia, speak to your doctor to start the process of assessing the symptoms.

Can you improve your memory? Yes! There are many things that you can do to assist in improving cognitive functioning and memory.

  • Getting a good amount of sleep (an average of 8h a day) is important for overall health, not just to improve cognitive functioning.

  • Proper exercise and diet are also extremely important for mental health. You are what you eat! Taking in the proper nutrients on a daily basis is important to keep your cells functioning properly - make sure to eat fruits and vegetables often! As for exercise, you don’t have to spend hours in the gym - walking is a great way to stay fit and healthy and take in some fresh air!

  • Being social is another important factor for improving memory. Join a group activity such as a walking group, book club or get together with family and friends often for some catch-up tea. A change of scenery, as well as active conversations, help improve our cognitive abilities.

  • Reducing stress is also of utmost importance for overall health! Find yourself a stress-reducing hobby such as knitting, puzzles, gardening, meditating or woodwork. Reading has shown incredible signs of improving the structure of our brains along with other benefits, so treat yourself to an afternoon of personal time with a good book by the beach.

  • Looking after a pet also has shown signs of stress relief, so if you are in a position to, why not adopt a pet from the local kennels and free two birds with one key?

Don’t wait until you start to show signs of memory loss to start implementing these tips. Take the first step today and help improve your future self.

If you would like to find out more about memory loss or the signs and effects of dementia, please feel free to give us a call on 0876543177 or visit our RezCare Lounge at 85 Main Road, Fish Hoek, Cape Town, South Africa.

Continued Reading

  1. The Human Memory

  2. Memory Problems: What is normal aging and what is not?

  3. How Memory Works

Youtube Videos on Memory

  1. How to use memory techniques to improve learning and education - TedX by Boris Nikolai Konrad (12min 42sec)

  2. How We Make Memories: Crash Course Psychology #13 - CrashCourse (9min 54sec)

  3. The Best Way to Keep Your Mind Young - SciShow Psych (5min 34sec)

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