Memory and ageing

As you get older, your brain changes and ages with you. It is normal for you to become more forgetful or to experience minor memory or thinking issues as you get older. Some of the normal experiences related to ageing include:

  • Slower recall and thinking
  • Forgetting the finer details of a conversation
  • Having difficulty in learning new information
  • Being slower at solving complex or unfamiliar problems
  • Having difficulty multitasking

There are different types of forgetfulness that can occur for different reasons. These types of forgetfulness are normal and are not a sign of dementia:

  • Transience – forgetting facts or events over time
  • Absentmindedness – forgetting because you were not paying close attention
  • Blocking – having the answer on the tip of your tongue
  • Misattribution – remembering some details accurately but getting muddled with other details
  • Suggestibility – learning new information after an event that becomes incorporated into your memory of it
  • Bias – your personal perceptions that influence the information you actually recall, including experiences, beliefs, mood, and prior knowledge

You can read more about the types of forgetfulness that are normal as you get older here.

Causes

Changes in memory can be caused by older age, but can also be caused by other reasons. Some common causes of memory problems include:

  • Some medications or combinations of medications
  • Head injury
  • Not paying attention
  • Mental health, including stress, anxiety, and depression
  • Vitamin B-12 deficiency

If you are experiencing changes in your memory, you may want to investigate the cause with your doctor.

Management strategies

If you notice problems with your memory, there are some tips you can use to help you continue daily life as normal.  
 

Daily management

  • Make to-do lists to keep track of what you need to do every day
  • Use a planner or calendar to structure your days or weeks
  • Break your tasks into manageable chunks
  • Take regular breaks
  • Only do one thing at a time

Reminders

  • Make use of calendars, clocks, and daily newspapers to keep track of the time and date
  • Keep a diary or calendar to track appointments, commitments, or important things to remember
  • Put important things like keys, glasses, money, and phones in the same place in your home so you know where to find them
  • Set up automatic payments or direct debit for regular bills
  • Make a list of important phone numbers to leave by your telephone
  • Use your watch or phone alarm to remind you of when you need to do things

Mental practices

  • Try to focus your attention on what is important rather than remembering every detail
  • Repeat information such as names or telephone numbers over and over to cement them in your memory
  • Mentally retrace what you have done or where you have been and try to remember every little detail
  • Categorise information to make it easier to recall later
  • Do something else if you get stuck or cannot remember something and try again later

Is it dementia?

Dementia is a term that covers a range of diseases that change the structure of the brain. In some cases, memory loss can be the first sign of dementia. If your memory loss is affecting your ability to function independently, you should see your doctor.

Normal age-related memory loss does not affect your ability to go about your day normally. You may have early signs of dementia if you are:

  • Repeatedly asking the same questions
  • Forgetting common words and mixing up words
  • Misplacing items in inappropriate places
  • Getting lost in familiar areas
  • Having trouble managing money, using the telephone, using transportation, or remembering to take medication

You can find more information on dementia on our dementia page. If you are concerned, talk to your doctor.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI)

If your memory and thinking problems are worse than normal age-related memory loss but are not serious enough to indicate dementia, you may be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This can affect memory, language, thinking, and judgement. MCI increases your risk of developing dementia, but it is not inevitable, and 1 in 5 people with MCI will return to a normal level of cognitive function for their age within a few years.

People with MCI may be able to manage their memory loss well with memory loss strategies and tools. If you have MCI, you should keep as healthy as possible to minimise the risk of dementia developing. You can find more information on MCI here.

Prevention

The risk of age-related memory loss can be lessened with some lifestyle changes. These include:

  • Staying mentally active – challenge your brain with mentally engaging activities and try learning new things 
  • Exercise – try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day
  • Nutrition – eat healthy, antioxidant-rich food and stay hydrated
  • Sleep – aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night
  • Connect – stay socially active to stimulate your brain and lift your mood
  • Breathe – become aware of your breath and move into the present moment to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression

If you are worried about your memory or cognitive abilities, talk to your doctor.

Websites of interest

  • You can find a pamphlet on Memory and Ageing on our resources page
  • Grey Matters has some creative tips and tricks that other people have used to manage memory loss
  • More information on age-related brain changes can be found at Grey Matters

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