As we grow older, we grow in wisdom. But at the same time, our brain grows smaller and smaller – by about 2% each decade. Luckily, this shift in cerebral size is a natural part of the aging process, and it happens so gradually that we don't really notice it.
One part of our brain, the frontal lobe, seems to age more quickly than other parts of our brain. By age 80, the frontal lobe loses approximately 25% of its earlier size! Since it is responsible for brain functions like response, problem solving, judgment, and attention, the frontal lobe's aging may be one of the main reasons why some older people have trouble recalling names or facts. Another aging brain trait is a breakdown in communication between brain cells, or neurons.
Research has also turned up evidence that as we age, our brains may go into what is called a seesaw imbalance. Like a seesaw, our brains teeter and totter between paying attention to the tasks in front of us and being distracted by fleeting thoughts, daydreams, or outside stimuli. So, as we get older, our brains may become less efficient at staying balanced on this seesaw, which can make it harder to perform tasks related to memory, such as making sense of new information, storing it away, and then retrieving it later.
Thus, as we age, we may also easily forget a new neighbour's name or a few items we meant to fetch at the market. Or we might flub the date more often. Unless there is an underlying problem – trauma or injury, infection, development of dementia or Alzheimer's disease – most so-called "senior moments" can be blamed on natural aging of the brain and are nothing to worry about.
But forgetting the names of loved ones is a different story. So is not being able to recall having visited the market at all, or not knowing what year it is. These are the type of forgetfulness that signal more serious problems.
Other causes of memory loss or forgetfulness include stroke, head trauma or injury, thyroid diseases, certain medications, depression or anxiety, alcoholism, poor diet (e.g., vitamin B12 deficiency), and sleep disorders. Low levels of high-density lipids, better known as HDL or "good" cholesterol, has also been linked to poor memory. And some researchers believe that changing levels of the female hormone estrogen may create memory difficulty, especially after menopause and during pregnancy.
Despite this natural aging process, our brains remain quite adaptable to change, allowing us to learn new things, make new connections, and to fend off memory loss. And we can give our brain the help it needs by following good habits for a healthy memory.
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