Memory and Ageing 

  • Where did I put my glasses?

  • What is that person’s name again?

  • It’s on the tip of my tongue!

  • What did I come in here for?

  • Did I lock the door?

Mild memory loss affects everyone. While memory difficulties can be very frustrating, many of them are part of normal ageing and are not because of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Memory changes with age

When some of these things happen occasionally, they are usually just normal memory challenges or forgetfulness:

  • Misplacing keys, glasses, or other items

  • Momentarily forgetting someone’s name

  • Occasionally having to “search” for a word

  • Forgetting to run an errand

  • Forgetting an event from the distant past

  • When driving, briefly forgetting where to turn

  • Speed of processing – you may take longer to think things through

  • Difficulty doing more than one thing at a time, including remembering what you were doing before you were interrupted or why you went into a room

  • Remembering more trivial information, such as names, where you have put things, or what you wanted to buy at the supermarket

Other mental abilities stay the same, or even get better with age, such as:

  • Vocabulary

  • Expertise – skills that you are very good at usually stay the same

  • Remembering things like appointments or family gatherings that are socially important

Other Causes of Memory Issues

There are lots of other possible causes of memory difficulties

  • Sometimes memory difficulties are actually due to not paying attention. If you don’t pay attention to information in the first place, then it is harder to recall it later. Strategies such as focusing on only one task at a time can help you better remember what you did later.

  • Different medications and medical conditions can have side effects which can affect your memory.

  • Mental health: Trouble concentrating can be a symptom of depression, anxiety, or stress.

  • Other medical conditions can also affect your ability to remember and recall information

What can I do?

Improving and maintaining memory

Memory is linked to your overall health and wellbeing or hauora. You can look after your health and memory by:

Staying mentally active

It is never too late to start exercising the brain. Try learning a new skill or practice mentally challenging tasks.

Some ideas of activities that can help challenge your brain and reduce the risk of age-related memory loss are:

  • Reading

  • Crosswords 

  • Sudoku 

  • Puzzles

  • Computer activities

  • Crafts

  • Learning to play a musical instrument

  • Games like bridge, mah-jong, and chess

  • Learning a new language

  • Taking up a new hobby or sport

  • Free online brain games: memory, math, and word games can be found online by typing in "Free brain games" into your favorite search bar e.g. 

  • Brain aerobics (neurobics): exercises that use all your senses. You could try buttoning your shirt or tying your shoes with your eyes closed, eating with your non-dominant hand, or using the computer mouse with your left hand instead of your right.

    What counts here is that it’s a challenge. Make sure you’re trying new things and things that are difficult for you, to encourage your brain to make new connections and learn new things.

    •  Keep healthy

Exercise:  Being fit is associated with improved memory and learning, and studies have shown those ‘tip of the tongue’ moments are less likely the fitter you are. Even small amounts of exercise can make a difference – what counts is that it’s regular. You could try dancing or kapa haka! This combines physical activity, brain exercise (counting rhythms, learning steps etc.), and social interaction. Or you may prefer to join a walking  or or exercise group. Contact your local Age Concern to see what activities you could join. More ideas, inspiration, and motivation on staying fit and active (Age Concern- Get Physical, and Super Seniors- Keeping active). 

Diet: A healthy, balanced diet with lots of fruit and vegetables will improve your overall health – remember we need to put good fuel into our engines! It’s also important to eat regularly. You might like to take a class in cooking and nutrition.More information on eating well after 65 can be found on HealthedNutrition Foundation and Health Promotion Agency- Alcohol and older people 

Sleep gives your body a chance to rest and recover, but it is also key to your brain’s ability to learn and remember. Lack of sleep makes it harder to focus and learn, and your brain does the work to make a memory stick while you are sleeping.  More info on sleep and memory can be found on Webmd and tips on how to sleep well as you age can be found on the Help Guide

Mental Health:
Practise activities that reduce stress and bring you joy. If you’re feeling sad or lonely and all this feels too hard, talk to somebody – your GP, a trusted friend or family member, or call your local Age Concern.  More information and support on mental health and depression.

Get social: Develop and maintain strong social support networks. Social connection stimulates the brain, and helps to reduce the risk of developing dementia and depression. You can even combine your social activities with physical and mental exercise through sport or other hobbies. For some ideas on how to keep connected have a read of our info sheet Keeping Connected Link to Age Concern Keeping connected info sheet

Tips and techniques to manage memory difficulties

 There are lots of strategies you can use to work around any memory problems. The most important one is to concentrate and relax when trying to remember. Take the time you need and don’t stress – there's no hurry. 

Examples of practical strategies

  • Place important or commonly lost items such as money, phone and charger, hearing aid, glasses etc. in the same spot every time e.g. keys on a hook by the front door

  • Write things down e.g. make a “to do” list and keep it in a prominent place so you see it.

  • Say words out loud e.g. “I have turned off the iron”, or repeat a person’s name after being introduced

  • Use memory aids e.g. notepad, diary, wristwatch alarm, voice recorder using calendars and diaries, use clocks, wear a watch, put up a calendar and subscribe to a daily newspaper to help you to keep track of time. Keep a diary or notebook to record appointments, to do lists, information from conversations, and anything else you want to remember. You can also use your computer or mobile phone to do this.

  • Write your weekly plan and routine on a big whiteboard on the wall. Set a consistent structure for your day and week – for example, schedule meals, rests and planned exercise at the same time every day. This will make it easier for you to be organised.

  • Keep important telephone numbers by the telephone.

  • Pay regular bills by direct debit or automatic payment.

  • Set the alarm on your watch or phone, or use a timer, to remind you to start or stop an activity.

  • Use electronic aids. A phone or dictaphone is useful for recording messages and notes. Take photos with your phone to remember things when out and about, for example, where you parked your car.

  • Break tasks into bite-sized, manageable chunks.

  • Try to do one thing at a time.

    Mental strategies to manage memory loss

  • Focus your attention – deliberately concentrate on the information coming in. Understand what is important to remember and what isn't.

  • Store the information deeply by summarising it in your own words and relating new information to your previous experience. This helps to cement it deep in your memory.

  • Rehearse – repeat information such as names or telephone numbers over and over, silently or out loud.

  • Categorise information – practise storing information in chunks, which may help you recall it later. For example, rather than listing items separately on a shopping list, organise them in groups such as: meat, dairy, and produce.

  • Practise mental retracing – retrace what happened to help you remember something. For example, if you have lost your umbrella, think about what you were doing when you had it. Who did you see? What did you walk past? Every little detail can help you remember.

  • Do something else – if you can't recall something, relax and think of something else for a moment. Come back to what you are trying to remember a few seconds later. Try to use mental retracing, and associated facts to help you remember.

  • Group items: alphabetise a list, create an acronym (using the first letter of each item to form a word), use rhymes, or create a story to connect the information.

  • Try using mnemonics – a song, acronym, image, or a phrase to help remember a list of facts in a certain order. For example, My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies to remember the order of planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto)

  • Don't try too hard to think of the right word or piece of information – it will often pop into your head once you stop trying.

Is it dementia?

 Sometimes people can worry that their memory difficulties are symptoms of brain diseases such as dementia. The main difference between normal memory loss due to aging and memory loss that may be caused by dementia is that the problems in age-related memory loss don’t affect your   ability to go about your day normally.

While everyday memory problems are not usually signs of dementia, more serious memory problems that significantly affect your daily life can be symptoms of dementia. These include:

  • Becoming lost in an area you know very well

  • Asking the same questions over and over again

  • Becoming confused about time – getting things from the past mixed up with the present

  • Having trouble with managing money, using the telephone, using transportation or remembering to take medications.

For more information on Dementia and Alzheimer’s contact your GP or Alzheimer’s New Zealand

Talk to your doctor

If you are concerned about your memory, medication, depression, or other conditions, you can talk to your doctor, practice nurse, or health professional. This may provide some peace of mind, and they can investigate the causes of any memory difficulties, and discuss possible strategies and/or treatment with you.

Who else can help?

An occupational therapist may be able to help you work out strategies and use memory aids. You can search for an occupational therapist on the Occupational Therapy New Zealand website.