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Where'd I Put My Keys? How Your Memory Changes as You Age

May 27, 2024

Memory loss can be a common experience as people age. Some mild forgetfulness, like occasionally forgetting names or where you placed your keys, can occur in older adults and is often considered normal. 

“In fact, memory at any age is imperfect," said Shawna Reigel, M.D., Primary Care Physician at Inspira Medical Group. "Our brain processes incredible amounts of information every second, and there’s simply not enough room to store it all. So forgetting is actually an important part of how memory works."

However, significant or worsening memory loss that interferes with daily functioning is not necessarily an inevitable part of the aging process and could be a sign of a more serious condition such as Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia.

Learn more about how your memory works and what steps you can take to improve your cognitive health.

How our memories work

Unlike computers, our memories are dynamic and subject to change each time we recall them.

“While our brain can store vast amounts of information, it prioritizes important memories, often at the expense of less significant details, like event dates and even names,” said Dr. Reigel. “We can see this in the way we tell stories—sometimes the details of a story will change over time every time we tell it.”

When we learn new information, the neurons in our brains change to store specific memories. During sleep, these memories can be consolidated and become long-lasting.

How memory changes

As people age, cognitive decline is almost universal. “According to memory specialists, memory generally peaks in our early twenties and gradually declines thereafter,” Dr. Reigel explained. “Structural changes in the brain, such as weakening synapses, especially impact our processing speed and sensory processing. Basically, everything slows down.”

Older brains are also more sensitive to stress, distraction and fatigue, which can hurt memory recall. However, older brains are often better than younger brains at filtering out irrelevant information and forming connections between experiences, as they're wiser and have had more experiences. 

What’s considered normal memory loss

Some amount of cognitive decline is normal as we age; it’s just a part of life. But if you’re experiencing more frequent or severe cases of forgetfulness—like frequently forgetting new information or getting confused and lost in familiar places—then you need to talk to your doctor.

“A health care professional can help you figure out if what you’re experiencing is normal for your age or requires treatment or management,” said Dr. Reigel.

How to maintain your cognitive health

Understanding the nuances of memory and brain function can help distinguish between normal forgetfulness and more serious cognitive decline. Staying mentally and physically active, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, managing stress, getting enough sleep and staying socially engaged can support cognitive health as we age.

If you have any questions or concerns regarding your health, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician.

Topics: Behavioral Health, Primary Care