The ageing brain: does getting older mean losing memories?

The ageing brain: does getting older mean losing memories?

In an increasingly ageing population, understanding the changes we all go through with age has never been more important. Most older adults will agree that memory declines with age. However, it isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds, or entirely true. Firstly, there are different types of memory, and they don’t all decline together.

Episodic memory refers to ‘episodes’ in your life, such as ‘what did I have for breakfast?’, and this variety of memory does decline with age. After your early 20s (when your brain volume peaks), you may start to find it more and more difficult to recall the name of a restaurant you visited once, for example; especially if you’re put on the spot and not given a cue. This isn’t because of a ‘storage’ issue – your brain doesn’t become full, so to speak. It’s due to the connections in your brain becoming a little less robust and shrinking, so it takes a bit longer to retrieve the information you want. All is not lost here – ‘brain training’ games and challenging yourself mentally (such as by learning a new language, perhaps) help to strengthen those connections.

However, the aged brain does have the upper hand in semantic memory (the memory of facts and information) – research now shows that semantic memory appears to improve with age! Furthermore, neuroimaging studies show that the volume of the brain area responsible for memory encoding is actually larger and changes less each year in older adults than younger adults – suggesting a more stable memory system. Mood is known to play a large role in memory recall, as does your own belief in how good your memory is, so the continuing publication of objective neuroimaging studies is hugely beneficial to understanding the ageing brain.

So yes, the brain does change with age and this is inevitable – but this doesn’t mean complete memory decline, nor is it inevitable how much the brain changes. Simply pushing yourself a little bit mentally each day can help maintain a healthy brain!

Annie Hill (Trainee Medical Writer, HealthCare21)