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Memory and aging: What's the link?

October 6, 2014 Wellness Articles By Julie Guay, PsyD

As the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, more people are becoming concerned about their memory and the risk of experiencing a memory disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Although age is a risk factor for memory problems, memory is a complex process that can be affected by a number of different factors and, sometimes, what appears to be a memory issue may be something else entirely.

At its most basic level, the memory process includes the following components: input, storage, and output. In other words, successful learning and memory occurs when the brain pays attention to the information being provided, is able to retain the information for long-term use, and can retrieve the information when necessary.

Unfortunately, there are a number of things that can interrupt this process. Excess noise, distractions, fatigue, anxiety, the effects of medications, medical conditions, and more are all factors that can interfere with our memory process. In addition, the pace of life has become so fast—with instantaneous access to email, text messages, and phone calls—that we are working to move faster and juggle multiple tasks, which can fragment our attention and negatively affect the memory process.

Distractions aside, once information is attended to, it needs to be stored for later. The ability to store this information can be dependent on a number of different factors, particularly our organizational skills and learning style. As we age, these skills weaken and become affected by other conditions, both physical and emotional, making it more difficult to retain information.

Finally, the third component of the memory process—recalling information—can be also be disrupted by a number of different factors. Emotional issues like anxiety and depression, traumatic brain injury, and chronic medical conditions can affect our ability to recall information when necessary.

If you find yourself concerned about your memory, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are attention issues interfering with the ability to take in new information?
  • Have there been any changes or problems with sleep, medication, or physical/emotional health?
  • Are memory issues impacting your home, work, and social functioning?

Depending on the answers to these questions, the first step may be to attempt to reduce your distractions, get enough rest, and manage a healthy mix of work activities, leisure time, and exercise. If problems persist even after these lifestyle changes, consult with your physician to determine whether or not further evaluation is necessary.

Whatever the cause of memory problems, it’s important to keep in mind that memory functioning can often be improved by adopting tools, strategies, and external support. Technological advancements has provided us with the ability to access calendars, alarm systems, organizers and electronic notepads that can all help improve memory functioning.

Julie Guay, PsyD is a psychologist with Bryn Mawr Rehab Psychology Associates.