I recently saw a meme: “Why can I remember the lyrics to my favorite song from 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 typical aging brain.
Memory Changes: Short Term vs, Long Term Memory
To start, let’s discuss short-term vs. 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 the thought you had just three minutes ago) are being stored by a brain that has changed. Neural growth has declined, while hormones and proteins that protect brain cells are less available. The hippocampus, the 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 with memory changes 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. These things can include names of close family and friends, confusion about routine tasks and events, and disorientation in familiar places or around time. Difficulty learning new, relatively simple things, like a simple card game or how to make a call on your new cell phone, are challenges as well. These types of changes should prompt a conversation with your doctor for cognitive assessment.
Tips to Improve Memory
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—four ears are better than two!
- 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.
Island Hospital speech therapists discuss these topics and more at www.islandhospital.org/physicaloccupationalspeechtherapy/pics 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 or call the Island Hospital Physical, Occupational & Speech Therapy department at 360.299.1328. We’re here to help.
Libby Lewis, MA, CCC-SLP has a Master of Arts in speech and hearing sciences from Western Washington University. She is certified in LSVT LOUD, MBSlmP, PESL Accent Modification and VitalStim. Lewis specializes in cognitive rehabilitation, language disorders, swallowing disorders, and dysarthria treatment.