Some thoughts on memory and age

14 Aug

There is a general decline in memory with age that seems to affect all of us, this is called benign senescent forgetting  and is not considered pathological. Naturally, we find this forgetting disconcerting. Fortunately, however, there is evidence that we can reduce the effects of benign senescent forgetting. We know that environmental factors must be important because there are differences between generations in performance on memory tests. Standard scores for psychological tests are set by administering the large representative samples of the general population. When tests are restandardized we can compare changes in test performance across generations. For example, one study found that 61 – 75 years olds tested in 2007, performed better than 61 – 75 year olds tested in 1985. The improvements were substantial and must have some environmental cause since the human genome could not have substantially changed in the intervening decades.
The fact that environmental factors must affect memory is heartening news, because it suggests that memory improvement is possible.
However, benign senescent forgetting remains frightening and we worry that it may be an early sign of dementia. Our fear of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia may not be misplaced. Even if average memory performance of older people has been improving, as life expectancy increases a larger percentage of us may succumb to dementia.
Dementia is a degenerative brain disorder. Memory loss is the major symptom of dementia, but patients also exhibit other forms of intellectual decline.
In the United States 5% of those between the ages of 71 and 79 years suffer from dementia, while 37.4% of those 90 and older suffer from dementia. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 69.9 cases of dementia. Vascular dementia accounts for another 17.4%. The reaming 12.7% includes Parkinson’s dementia, traumatic brain injuries, alcoholic dementia, and other causes.
There is evidence that we can reduce our risks of dementia. Physical exercise, healthy diet, cognitive engagement, and memory training do seem to offer some protection.

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