Memory and Aging

“The fastest growing portion of the population are those over 65 – those over 85, in fact. In the year 2020, we will have as many people over 65 in our population as we will have age 19 and under”, says Anderson D. Smith. A person’s memory declines as much as 40 percent between the ages of 25 and 65, he says. “Your memory is going to change; you’re going to experience deficits”. The good news is that you can cope very well. In general, men and women are affected the same way as they age.

“Successful aging is not the absence of psychological change – successful aging is the ability to adapt and control that change. If you do that well, you can have a very happy, active life into your nineties ­even with memory losses and deficits, you will be able to function very well.”

Only about 12 percent of older Americans suffer from dementia characterized by

memory loss, confusion or disorientation. 5 percent of the population over 65 will experience Alzheimer’s. “It’s not a normal progression of aging”. It’s not that if we live long enough, we’ll get senile. There are people over 100 years old who are not senile.

Elderly people can become forgetful, disoriented or confused because of a reversible condition unrelated to dementia, such as drug interactions, poor diet or diseases of the heart or lungs which could starve the brain of oxygen. Good physical health can benefit mental health, but it will not prevent mental disease, Smith says. Anything that makes the body function optimally will be of benefit. Exercise and proper diet will help. “The health of individuals accounts for about 15 percent of the variations in studies on memory. Your health is important; your health can help you.”

The ability to define words (semantic memory), doesn’t change with normal aging, and Smith says semantic memory may actually get better. “You don’t remember the context of when or where you learned it, you just know it – it’s part of your world knowledge: like two plus two is four, or George Washington was the first president of the United States.” But semantic memory does change eventually with Alzheimer’s disease. “Unfortunately, tests are not specific enough now,” Smith says. “You can’t give someone a vocabulary test to see whether they have Alzheimer’s or not.”

One of his objectives concerning research of the cognitive changes that occur with normal aging will be the ability to better diagnose the pathologies of aging, Smith says.

“If we know well what it is that changes with aging, then this knowledge can lead to a diagnosis and development of interventions to help people with their problems. If we know a particular kind of memory is going to deteriorate and change, then we should be able to come up with ways to help people with that. “

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