How Might Old Age Affect a Person’s Memory?

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You lose your glasses or forget where you put the book you were reading and think ‘there I go again, my memory is going!’ Your memory ability is probably just fine. The problem may be you’re just not paying enough attention.

Another example of this is when you have had to search for your car keys or you find yourself in a room and wonder what you came in for!

So if you can’t find your house keys, have forgotten the name of a new neighbour or catch yourself filling the teapot with cold water instead of the kettle, DON’T WORRY. This is quite normal and only becomes a concern when forgetfulness grows more severe.

Age and Memory Loss

Studies show that every day cognitive deficits like forgetting things occur from about the age of 45; younger people forget things too. What might sound surprising is that from the age of 20 people begin to lose brain cells as the body starts to make less of the chemicals the brain needs to work. These changes will inevitably affect the memory over time.

In the 1990s, Michela Gallagher, a professor of psychology at the Johns Hopkins University, studied human data and traced the neurological pathways of more than 800 healthy rats across their lifetime to determine the processes that link memory and ageing.

What was found was that the loss of grey matter which so many think is a natural result of ageing is actually a process that occurs throughout a person’s lifetime.

Neuron numbers diminish slowly over decades as cells die off regularly from youth to old age. So the older you are, the more these changes can affect your memory. The brain has a remarkable ability to compensate for these losses so there is no perceptible effect until the losses become more profound.

Ageing may affect memory mainly by changing the way the brain stores information and by making it harder to recall information.

Common Everyday Memory Failures in Old Age

People who believe they have a poor memory are usually no worse at remembering than whose who believe they have a good memory. One theory for this is that people are influenced by their general beliefs about how memory changes with age. If you believe your memory will get worse as you grow older, you will pay more attention to memory failures and each bout of forgetfulness will reinforce your belief that your memory is getting worse.

Common everyday memory failures tend to be judged more harshly when these failures belong to an older person. What is shrugged off in a younger adult as being

A temporary lapse of memory is classed as memory failure in an older person when this may not be so at all.

There are ways in which cognitive function declines with age but general assumption about age and memory will tend to over-estimate this. It is to a large extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe deterioration is inevitable, you are not likely to make any effort to halt it.

A large scale study over a ten year period found that cognitive decline is not a normal part of aging for most elderly people. 70% of the adults in the study showed no decline in memory. What has been found is that there are factors that may affect memory in older adults. These are high blood pressure, obesity and smoking.

Other factors that may affect the memory include:

Anxiety worrying about your memory and getting scared when you can’t remember a name, date or other things. This makes it harder to remember. Be patient with yourself and give yourself time to remember

  • Fatigue tiredness can make you less attentive and less able to take the steps needed to remember.
  • Stress when you are under stress you may have less energy to learn new things or to retrieve them from your long term memory.
  • Alcohol can affect memory and thinking.

Normal Memory Problems and Aging

It is normal for people to be slower in processing information as they age however there is no structural changes to memory in normal aging.

It is normal for word-finding problems to increase as people grow older, for instance, the increasing use of vague terms rather than specific ones: ‘I wonder where that thing that goes here is.’ He went to that place we always went to, you know the one!’

Use of empty phrases and indefinite terms i.e. referring to someone or something as ‘it’, ‘that’, ‘him’ without first identifying them with a name is not unusual.

Normal too is increasing frequency of pauses ‘The word’s on the tip-of-my-tongue.’

These problems are all characteristic of NORMAL ageing.

How Does Old Age Affect the Memory?

The good news therefore is: serious memory loss is NOT an inevitable part of aging.

As a person gets older, there is a tendency to blame memory errors on age. In truth, the memory errors of older adults often have the same causes of those that plague younger people. And these are: a lack of effort, attention or health problems.

Possible causes of memory loss in old age include:

  • Memory problems may increase because older adults fail to use memory strategies or people may forget how to use memory because they become memory-dependent on their children or spouses.
  • Self-confidence may weaken because older people avoid mental challenges when they feel ‘too old’.
  • Memory tasks are more difficult because an older person might fail to make the effort because they believe the extra effort won’t help.
  • As people grow older, their mind is an even bigger warehouse of thought, feelings, memories, worries and other distractions. These can get in the way of action.

Ageing may affect the memory by changing the way the brain stores information and by making it harder to recall stored information. Older brains however are also immense storehouses of experiences that those in their senior years can draw on and share.


Cox, Tom (1992) “Stress”, MacMillan Press Ltd, Hampshire

Neisser U. Cognitive Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century Crofts 1977.


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