As we age, our bodies and brains slow down and we may experience mild memory loss (such as forgetfulness), but memory problems that are more progressive can be a result of a condition like Alzheimer’s or vascular dementia.
40 per cent of people over 65 have some type of memory problem but only 15 per cent will develop dementia each year.
Though memory loss is one of the first signs of dementia, between five and 20 per cent of people aged over 65 have mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is defined as having a worse memory than normal for someone their age, but not seriously enough to impact on daily living. MCI may be an intermediate stage between age-related cognitive change and dementia, although not everyone will go on to develop dementia.
Memory problems can be caused by many different factors. A study by the Columbia Medical Centre (CUMC), discovered that deficiency of a protein called RbAp48, found in the hippocampus area of the brain and responsible for controling memory and emotional response, is a significant contributor of age-related memory loss. However, their study suggests age-related memory loss may be reversible.
Depression, anxiety and stress are other common causes of memory loss. Researchers at the University of Calgary believe that depression and anxiety may cause changes to the brain, causing inflammation to the hippocampus, therefore leading to a decline in cognitive functions.
Other causes include of memory loss include: alcoholism; vitamin B12 deficiency; underactive thyroid; head injury; a virus, such as the herpes simplex virus, that may cause brain inflammation; and, in rarer cases, a brain tumour. Memory loss can also be a short-term symptom of diabetes, when blood sugar levels are too low or too high.
Some medicines can also interfere with memory. Examples include: anti-anxiety medications which have a sedative effect; statins, which are cholesterol-lowering medications; and tricyclic antidepressant medicines, with 35 per cent of those taking it reporting some signs of memory impairment.
Age-related memory loss symptoms include forgetfulness – such as not remembering an appointment, mislaying keys or becoming distracted and forgetting details of a conversation – and sufferers may need more time to process information.
If you’re worried that you or someone you care for has memory problems, visit your GP who will assess the signs of cognitive decline or warning signs for dementia, and make a referral to a memory clinic if need be, where further tests can be done.
Who gets memory loss?
Everyone can experience memory problems at some point, but they are more common in the over 65s.
Treatment for memory loss will depend on the cause. Your doctor may recommend a combination of treatments, including medications such as antidepressants (if you’re suffering with depression, stress or anxiety); or a talking therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Lifestyle factors that may help keep your brain healthy and active include: eating a healthy balanced diet, with foods containing vitamin B12 such as dairy products, eggs, meat and fish; regular exercise; brain games and crosswords, such as Sudoku; stopping smoking; and reducing alcohol consumption.
Recent studies show the Mediterranean Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay (MIND) diet can help improve brain health. It involves eating a Mediterranean-style diet – including plenty of antioxidant-rich fruit and vegetables, fish, wholegrains, olive oil and nuts, but low in red meat, saturated fats, sugary carbohydrates and fried foods.
Research has shown that omega 3 can be beneficial for cognitive function. A study, published by the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, found that omega 3 supplements made significant benefits to memory function compared to a placebo (sugar pill) within a group of healthy 50 to 75 year olds.
Ginkgo biloba and ginseng are often used together to support cognitive function. One study, by the University of Northumbria, found that ginkgo biloba improves concentration while ginseng sharpens memory.
Nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet to provide all the nutrients we need. But when this isn't possible, supplements can help. This article isn't intended to replace medical advice. Please consult your healthcare professional before trying supplements or herbal medicines.