Memory and Ageing

Forgetfulness is a common complaint among older adults but age-related memory changes are not the same thing as dementia. Memory loss is not an inevitable part of the ageing process, although as we grow older, it takes longer to learn and recall information. However, lifestyle, health habits, and daily activities have a huge impact on the health of your brain.

For most people, occasional lapses in memory are a normal part of the ageing process. Typical examples of this include forgetting where you left things you use regularly, such as glasses or keys, forgetting names of acquaintances, walking into a room and forgetting why you entered and not quite being able to retrieve information you have “on the tip of your tongue.”

The main difference between this normal type of age-related memory loss and dementia is that simple occasional lapses of memory have little effect on your daily performance and the ability to do what you want to do. However, if memory loss becomes so severe that it affects your work, hobbies, social activities, and family relationships, this may be the sign of dementia starting.

Reversible causes of memory loss.

Side effects of medication.

Many prescribed and over-the-counter drugs or combinations of drugs can cause memory loss as a side effect. Common medications that affect memory include sleeping pills, antihistamines, blood pressure and arthritis medication, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medicines, and painkillers.


Depression can mimic the signs of memory loss, and is a common problem in older adults—especially if you’re less social and active than you used to be or you’ve recently experienced a major life change such as retirement, a serious medical diagnosis, bereavement or moving house.

Vitamin B12 deficiency.

Vitamin B12 is vital to healthy brain functioning but older people have a slower nutritional absorption rate, which can make it difficult for them to get the B12 their mind and body needs. If you smoke or drink, you may be at particular risk. Treatment is available from your doctor.

Thyroid problems.

The thyroid gland – situated in the neck - controls the metabolism of the body. If your metabolism is too fast, you may feel confused, and if it’s too slow, you can feel sluggish and depressed. Thyroid problems can cause memory problems such as forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating.

Alcohol abuse.

Excessive alcohol intake can lead to memory loss and over time, alcohol abuse may also increase the risk of dementia. Limit your daily intake to just 1-2 drinks.


Older adults are particularly susceptible to dehydration. Severe dehydration can cause confusion, drowsiness, memory loss, and other symptoms that look like dementia. It’s important to stay hydrated (aim for 6-8 drinks per day).

Ways to help prevent memory loss

Eat healthily.

Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and drink green tea as these foods contain lots of antioxidants, which can keep your brain cells healthy. Foods rich in omega-3 fats (such as salmon, tuna, trout, walnuts, and flaxseed) are particularly good for your brain and memory.

Exercise regularly.

Regular exercise boosts brain growth factors and encourages the development of new brain cells. Exercise also reduces the risk for disorders that lead to memory loss, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease and also helps in managing stress and reducing anxiety.

Keep a strong social life.

People who have little social contact with family and friends are at higher risk for memory problems than people who have strong social ties. Social interaction helps brain function since it often involves activities that challenge the mind.

Manage your stress.

Cortisol, the stress hormone, damages the brain over time and can lead to memory problems. But even before that happens, stress causes memory difficulties in the moment. When you’re stressed out, you’re more likely to suffer memory lapses and have trouble learning and concentrating.

Get plenty of sleep.

Sleep is necessary for memory consolidation, the process of forming and storing new memories so you can retrieve them later. Poor quality sleep can cause problems with memory, concentration, and decision-making.

Don’t smoke.

Smoking heightens the risk of vascular disorders that can cause stroke and constrict arteries that deliver oxygen to the brain.

Give your brain some exercise.

Just as physical exercise can make and keep your body stronger, mental exercise can make your brain work better and lower the risk of mental decline. Try doing brain exercises that you find enjoyable - the more pleasurable an activity is to you, the more powerful its effect will be on your brain. Examples of these include;

Games that involve strategy – such as chess or bridge - and word games like Scrabble.

Crosswords, word puzzles, and number puzzles such as Sudoku.

Reading challenging articles in newspapers and magazines, and books that make you think.

Learning or trying something new such as new recipes, a musical instrument or a foreign language.

Taking a course in an unfamiliar subject that interests you. The more interested and engaged your brain, the more likely you’ll be to continue learning and the greater the benefits you’ll experience.