Nearly everyone has at some time forgotten where they put their keys or lost their car in a crowded Wal-Mart parking lot, or even found themselves in a room wondering, “Was I coming in here for something, or going out?”
For people in their sixties or later, these events are commonplace. They’re called “Senior Moments”, and they can be very embarrassing. Most people expect those of us who have lived into our “late middle age” to have these lapses in memory from time to time.
But what about people in their forties -- or even earlier? There is evidence that memory losses can occur relatively early in life (Boyles, 2012). A longitudinal study conducted in Britain followed 7400 men and women for approximately a decade. Subjects were between 45 and 70 years of age at the beginning of the study. Over the length of the study, men in their mid-forties at the beginning lost 3.6% of their mental reasoning. Although small, this loss signaled the very real possibility that memory loss begins early.
The common belief is that this kind of memory loss is just something to be expected. Something that happens due to perhaps subtle deterioration of the brain. The older you get, the worse your memory.
There is something to this belief. Evidence suggests there are changes in areas of the brain related to memory, and these changes lead to difficulties in memory (Salami, Pudas, & Nyberg, 2014). Certain regions in the hippocampus, the brain structure involved in many functions in relation to memory, appear to work less effectively as people age. An area close to the hippocampus, called the entorhinal cortex, also is implicated in memory and suffers changes due to aging (Maass, et al., 2014).
Some research has indicated a genetic basis for age-related memory loss, as well. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (2013) found a protein called RbAp48 plays a major role in the hippocampus and memory loss. Microarray, or genetic expression, analyses indicated changes in this gene to be prominent in subjects with memory loss. In mouse studies, manipulation of this gene brought memory loss, along with regained memory when the gene was restored. This strongly suggests genetic manipulation may lead to restored memory.
But that’s in the future for humans. And who can really see themselves undergoing a procedure that will undoubtedly be expensive?
Fortunately, there are other studies that show other ways to restore age-related memory loss.
Flavanols in Cocoa May Lead to Restored Memory -- New Research
Scientists from Columbia University Medical Center have found the flavanols in dietary cocoa to be effective in reversing age-related memory loss (Brickman, et al., 2014). This research may be the first to show directly that one part of memory loss is tied to a specific brain region and can be reversed through dietary changes. The dentate gyrus area of the brain appears to be the part of the brain where age-related memory loss originates.
The scientists at Columbia University Medical Center knew from previous research that the flavanols from cocoa beans brought about significant positive changes in the functioning of the dentate gyrus in rats. Subjects in this current study consumed either a high-flavanol or low-flavanol diet for three months. At the end of this time, the dentate gyrus region of their brains was evaluated by brain imaging and memory tests. They had undergone this same type of evaluation before the three month study began. Comparison of the pre- and post-study evaluations showed significantly better functioning of the dentate gyrus, as measured by blood flow, in those subjects who consumed the high-flavanol diet. Results of the memory tests were also significantly better in this group after the study.
One of the researchers noted that a subject who had the typical memory of a 60-year-old at the beginning of the study had, on average, the memory abilities of a typical 30 or 40-year-old at the end of the study. This finding was for those subjects who consumed the high-flavanol diet. This researcher went on to say the findings needed to be replicated with a larger sample size to determine whether these findings would prove to be conclusive.
The research doesn’t suggest consuming a great amount of chocolate will improve your memory. The flavanols under study are present in only small amounts in ordinary chocolate. But this is a significant step forward in helping people who suffer from age-related memory loss.
Age-Related Memory Loss or Dementia?
With the rise in incidence of dementia and even Alzheimer’s Disease, one of the first things people typically want to know when suffering “Senior Moments” is, “Do I have Alzheimer’s?”
There are significant differences between age-related memory loss and either dementia or Alzheimer’s. The following are some of the more obvious differences (Smith, Robinson, & Segal, 2014).
In age-related memory loss, you are still able to live independently, doing your normal activities, even though there are periods of memory loss. In dementia, everyday activities are much more difficult or impossible. You would have trouble paying bills, cleaning up after yourself, dressing appropriately, and even remembering how to do things you’ve done all your life.
With age-related memory loss, you are able to recall the times you had trouble remembering. On the other hand, with dementia, people are not able to remember times memory loss caused them problems.
In the case of age-related memory loss, you may have to stop and think about where you’re going, but you typically will recall the directions. With dementia, people get lost even in familiar surroundings.
Holding conversations are not hampered by age-related memory loss, even though you may struggle to find the words you want. But people with dementia confuse words, garble them, and completely forget them. Their conversations often consist of repeated phrases or stories with no indication the person recognizes they are repeating them.
You will have no trouble making decisions in general with age-related memory loss. People with dementia often can’t make decisions and may behave in socially inappropriate ways, showing poor judgment.
If you add Alzheimer’s Disease to the comparison, the differences from age-related memory loss are extreme.
Other ways to Reverse Age-Related Memory Loss
As the population of the United States continues to age, the issue of memory loss grows in importance. Many avenues of possible ways to reverse memory loss are being examined.
One such study, (Siette, et al., 2013) looked at the effect of voluntary exercise on the neurons in the hippocampus of rats. The researchers found running increased synapses among neurons in the hippocampus of older rats to levels greater than those observed in younger rats.
Some research had already suggested strongly that exercise can positively affect the brain function of adults (Erickson, 2005). Forty minutes a day of aerobic exercise for three days a week led to an increase in the volume of the hippocampus in subjects going through this regimen. Shrinkage of the hippocampus appears to contribute to memory loss due to aging. Memory tests showed increases in results among this group compared to the control group.
Another study conducted at Columbia University Medical Center studied a small group of adults who went through a three month aerobic exercise regimen to determine the effect on blood flow in the dentate gyrus (Doctors Health Press Editorial Board, 2007). Results showed the more fit subjects became, the more blood flow increased in the dentate gyrus. This brain region has been shown to be involved in memory.
Other research has shown a combination of exercise and computer use to be valuable in reversing memory loss due to aging (Rettner, 2012). Interestingly, this combination showed positive results where use of the computer alone did not.
One study (Bozoki, et al., 2013) utilized a series of “senior friendly” games to examine whether a group of 60 to 80-year-olds could increase cognitive ability. Researchers determined a six-week, moderate intensity program of this nature would lead to increased cognitive ability. Findings were generally inconclusive. Part of this finding may have been due to sample size. Longer duration or more intensive interventions may lead to more positive findings.
A study from UCLA (Miller, et al., 2013) studied older adults with an average age of 82. The subjects played a computerized game consisting of 400 exercises in different memory area skills. After a six month period, those subjects who completed 40 sessions of 20 minutes each showed improvement in memory and language skills. This suggests older adults can benefit from computerized brain training.
Research at Yale University focused on the prefrontal cortex of monkeys (Singer, 2011). Researchers found the neurons on this brain region to fire less with age, even though those neurons in other brain areas continued to fire normally. Apparently, the reason for the slower rate of firing related to stress. With increasing stress, a molecule called cAMP flooded this brain region, causing potassium channels to open, thus slowing the rate of firing. The researchers treated this brain region with a drug that blocks potassium. The older neurons in the prefrontal cortex then began firing at a rate equivalent to those in the prefrontal cortex of younger monkeys. The drug, guanfacine, was originally developed to treat hypertension.
Another study investigated the ingestion of berries that were rich in flavanoids to see the effects on women’s memory (Devore, et al., 2012). The study involved over 16,000 subjects for six years. Their average age was approximately 70 years. Findings showed those subjects who consumed blueberries and strawberries showed reduced rates of cognitive decline.
A study reported in the Annals of Neurology (Kang, et al., 2005) investigated the effects of fruit and vegetable consumption on women’s memory. Over 13,000 women participated in this multi-year investigation. Findings showed total vegetable intake to be associated with reduced cognitive decline. Consumption of fruit did not yield significant results.
Although memory loss due to aging appears to affect a significant number of people, this decline in memory ability doesn’t have to be permanent. There are several ways to slow or even reverse such a decline. With continued research, early interventions that may serve to prevent age-related memory loss could be possible. Considering the dramatic increase in Americans over 65, this comes as a welcome opportunity.
At least some of the slowing or reversal of age-related memory loss appears to be due to a lifestyle choice. Increasing exercise, both physical and mental, along with good nutrition seem to be two of the choices people can make to make their memories sharp, even into old age.
Boyles, S. (2012). Memory loss may occur as early as 40s. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/brain/news/20120105/memory-loss-may-occur-40s
Bozoki, A., et al. (2012). Effects of a computer-based cognitive exercise program on age-related cognitive decline. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics; 57(1):1-7.
Brickman, A. M., et al., (2014). Enhancing dentate gyrus function with dietary flavanols improves cognition in older adults. Nature Neuroscience. DOI: 10.1038/nn.3850.
Devore, E. E., Kang, J. H., Breteler, M. M., & Grodstein, F. (2012). Dietary intakes of berries and flavonoids in relation to cognitive decline. Ann Neurol. 72(1):135-143.
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Salami, A., et al., (2014). Elevated hippocampal resting-state connectivity underlies deficient neurocognitive function in aging. Biol Psychiatry. 73(5):435-442.
Siette, J., et al., (2011). Age-specific effects of voluntary exercise on memory and the older brain. PNAS. 108(7):3017-3022.
Singer, E. (2011). Age-related memory loss reversed in monkeys. Retrieved from http://www. Technologyreview.com/news/424830/age-related-memory-loss-reversed-in-monkeys/page2/.
Smith, M., Robinson, L., & Segal, R. (2014). Age-related memory loss. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/memory/age-related-memory-loss.htm.
The Doctors Health Press Editorial Board. (2007). Exercise protects brain from age-related memory loss. Retrieved from http://www.doctorshealthpress.com/diatetes-artices/exercise-protects-brain-from-age-related-memory-loss.