As our parents get older, we often start to notice that they are forgetting to do simple daily activities or even forgetting things from the past. This memory loss can lead to Alzheimer’s or dementia. While memory loss is common with seniors, it is does not happen in all (or even most) cases. Most people can cite examples of elderly loved ones they know who are in their late 80s or even into their 90s and still have vivid memories going all the way back to their childhood.
The fact that some elderly people have been able to retain sharp memories while others experience memory loss has led scientists to study memory loss in further detail in hopes of discovering what physical and mental factors contribute to loss of memory and what is necessary to prevent it. So far, scientists have made some interesting findings.
When Does Memory Loss Begin?
Scientists believe that memory loss begins in most people toward the end of middle age and as they approach retirement. During this period, the brain begins to lose cells at a rate of 1% per year. 1% may not seem like much, and at first it may not be noticeable. But 1% compounded year after year becomes a noticeable loss in brain mass as people get further into their retirement years.
What Contributes to Memory Loss?
In addition to the loss of brain cells, it is believed that lifestyle changes related to retirement often contribute to the speeding up of memory loss. For example, when people stop working or doing regular daily activity, much of the information stored in the brain no longer has meaningful structural support. This makes it much more difficult to access the information.
What Groups Experience Memory Loss?
It is widely believed in the scientific community that environment plays at least as much or more a role in memory loss as heredity. This conclusion is based on studies of identical twins with the same genetic makeup. Scientists have found that even identical twins experience differing rates of cognitive decline, which strongly suggests that there must be important environmental factors that help determine the rate of memory decline as people age. Scientists believe that two of the most important factors are occupation and educational background.
Scientists have found that people with higher levels of education and/or those whose jobs require more complex mental functions on a regular basis are less likely to experience rapid memory loss that might lead to Alzheimer’s or dementia. The theory is that people in these categories get more mental “exercise” or stimulation than the general public. Just like physical exercise develops strength in your muscles, mental exercise increases brain connections and develops the mental “muscles.”
In this case, the “muscles” referred to by scientists are actually called “brain reserves.” The belief is that people with a lifetime of heavy mental activity develop more brain connections, which build up a reserve, so that when some connections weaken, the memory still continues to function well because of the back-up reserves. Those with these cognitive reserves are believed to have a greater ability to continue to develop more brain connections well into retirement, which more than compensates for the weakened connections, and helps explain why we see some 95 year olds whose memories are sharp as a tack.
It should be noted that this is only an educated theory and does not apply universally. There are certainly those with lower levels of education and careers that don’t require heavy use of the brain that still retain good memories into retirement. On the other hand, there are also people who were well educated and/or had mentally taxing careers that still develop Alzheimer’s or dementia and will need home health care Houston Alzheimer’s Care. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan is a prime example of the latter group.