Have you seen the meme: “Why can I remember the lyrics to my favorite song in high school 30 years later, but I can’t remember why I came into the kitchen?”  Many of us over 50 can relate!  And although this experience is frustrating, it’s not abnormal.

We anticipate muscles to change over time, but it can be alarming when the brain slows, particularly when memory weakens.  Let’s consider changes in the brain that impact memory, which ones are normal and which should raise red flags, and what can be done to strengthen memory in a typically aging brain.

To start, let’s discuss short-term versus long-term memory. Short-term memory tends to weaken over time, while long-term memory remains strong. This is because you stored those long-ago memories when you (and your brain) were younger, operating more optimally, and your body’s chemistry was different. On the other hand, the memories you created more recently (even that thought you had 3 minutes ago) are being stored by a brain that has changed. Neural growth has declined; hormones and proteins that protect brain cells are less available; the hippocampus (part of the brain most responsible for memory) has declined; and, often, less blood flow is reaching the brain to support memory and other cognitive skills.

As a result, experiences such as these become more common with age:

  • Word finding difficulties
  • Trouble recalling names and faces, especially of new people or those you see infrequently
  • Problems tracking appointments and daily events
  • Forgetting why you came into a room or where you placed things
  • Needing to write things down and keep lists

Abnormal changes, on the other hand, tend toward forgetfulness around very familiar things, such as names of close family and friends; confusion about routine tasks and events; disorientation in familiar places or around time; and difficulty learning new, relatively simple things like a simple card game or how to make a call on your new cell phone. These types of changes should prompt a conversation with your doctor for cognitive assessment.

Just because we may experience normal memory changes, however, doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do about it!  Speech-language pathologists frequently work with folks to improve memory.  Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Keep a memory notebook of important information.
  • Have someone accompany you to important appointments – 4 ears are better than 2!
  • Ask for information in writing.
  • Actively engage in conversations, and call others by name.
  • Say aloud why you are heading into a room and where you set objects down.
  • Get your hearing checked – if you heard it wrong, you’re going to remember it wrong! (Same goes for vision and other senses)
  • Eliminate clutter and establish routines.

If you would like to speak with a speech-language pathologist about memory loss, contact the Island Physical, Occupational & Speech Therapy at 360.299.1328. Island Health speech therapists discuss these topics and more and offer individual memory screenings every quarter. If you’d like to work with a speech therapist around your specific needs, ask your doctor for a referral. We’d love to help!

Click here to watch some short videos on how to improve your memory.

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Published on March 4, 2024