Memory is defined as “the power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Our ability to remember and to recall our past is what links us to our families, our friends and our community.
As we age, subtle changes in memory occur naturally as part of the aging process. However, sometimes these changes occur sooner than anticipated or faster than expected. These changes often go unnoticed, but at other times can be disturbing to ourselves or others. There are a number of things that can cause problems with memory or make normal age-related changes worse. For example, sometimes changes in memory might be due to a medication side effect or an existing or developing health problem, such as depression, anxiety, sleep problems, heart disease, infections in the brain, brain tumor, blood clots, head injury, thyroid disease, dehydration, or vitamin deficiency. If this is the case, identifying and treating the condition can improve your memory.
However, when memory loss prevents us from performing daily tasks and our accustomed roles in life, it becomes a health concern that needs further evaluation by healthcare professionals.
Simple forgetfulness (the “missing keys”) and delay or slowing in recalling names, dates, and events can be part of the normal process of aging. There are multiple memory processes, including learning new information, recalling information, and recognizing familiar information. Each of these processes can get disrupted, leading to the experience of forgetting. There are also different types of memory, each of which can be affected differently by normal aging as shown below.
Preserved memory functions
Declining memory functions
Memory problems that begins to interfere with normal daily life and activities are not considered normal aging. Forgetting where you put your glasses is a simple sign of forgetfulness, disorganization, or normal aging; however, forgetting what your glasses are used for or that they are worn on your face is not a normal memory problem.
The memory loss and thinking problems seen in mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or dementia are not normal aging. Researchers now believe that mild cognitive impairment is a point along the pathway to dementia for some individuals and the stage between the mental changes that are seen in normal aging and early-stage dementia. Not all individuals diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment will develop dementia. The following highlights some of the abnormal changes in memory that are seen in MCI and dementia.
Memory problems in people with mild cognitive impairment
Memory problems in people with dementia
Has many of the same symptoms of MCI plus as dementia progresses:
According to the American Academy of Neurology’s practice guideline for patients with mild cognitive impairment, the best thing you can do to maintain your brain health is to exercise (particularly aerobic exercise) twice a week.
Although there is no clear-cut proven link that doing any of the following will help slow memory and thinking skill decline, these are general recommendations for maintaining good health.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 05/14/2019.