Where Did Those Car Keys Go Again? Age-Related Memory Loss To Be Expected

If you don’t remember where you put your keys, it’s no reason to panic.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but forgetting is a normal part of remembering, said Kathleen Insel, an associate professor at the University of Arizona’s College of Nursing, speaking before a standing-room-only audience about normal age-related changes in cognitive processes. The course was part of a week-long series during Brain Week, hosted by Tucson Medical Center.

“There are some wonderful things about aging,” said Insel, who has clinical expertise in issues surrounding memory and thinking. “Family is one of them. Community is another. We often have stronger social relationships. Then there’s wisdom.”

However, she said, aging also often means people don’t have quite the sharp memory for things as they once did.

Insel said she’s no longer as adept at remembering phone numbers as she was when she was younger, for example.

“I want you to enjoy these things that are part of normal aging and not be so frightened that just because you’re experiencing some change in memory and thinking, that you’re on the downward path to Alzheimer’s,” she continued. “All of us experience some change in working memory and in our ability to keep as many balls in the air as we used to.”

Research studies have shown that the ability to hold information in the brain does indeed diminish somewhat with age – although Insel cautioned against internalizing negative stereotypes about aging.

Complicating the problem is that routines we do without thinking about them can confound memory, as well, which is why we sometimes find ourselves driving back home to see if we really shut the garage door or remembered to turn off the stove.

“Paying attention is really critical,” she said.

Other strategies to help counter any memory loss include writing things down and limiting distractions. Morning people should schedule important events, such as doctor’s visits, for the morning, when they are sharper.  Reducing stress is another key, she said, since anxiety makes it difficult to retain information.

Aside from the fact that there are practical steps people can take to counter a less efficient memory, Insel said there is other good news. “You’re healthier than any other generation before you,” she said, noting this generation has been exposed to better nutrition and have remained more active and mentally stimulated than generations past.

There are things to watch for, she said, including depression. And  if normal memory loss is forgetting the keys, dementia is forgetting what the keys are used for. Both are different from delirium, she said, which is temporary, acute confusion often brought on by sleep deprivation, infections, or elevated temperatures. “It’s a red flag to get help,” she said.

Managing weight, hypertension and diabetes are all key to maintaining strong cognitive function, she said, adding exercise and a positive outlook is important for a healthy brain as well.

“It is so important to live an active, involved, interested life and to be exposed to things that make you think,” she said.

Beverly Jordon, 66, said she has seen Insel speak in the past and wanted to hear more, even though it meant a trip across town from her west side home. She said at a previous speech, she picked up a visualization technique – such as seeing herself in her mind’s eye picking up milk or assorted groceries – that has worked for her by helping plow a pathway to cement a memory.

“I’m grateful that TMC has branched out and is offering these classes,” Jordon said.

Wayne Klement, who retired from the auto industry, has been to every one of the Brain Week classes so far this week. “I’m just interested in staying healthy and learning more about the brain and how it works,” said Klement, who was enrolled in the later Brain Aerobics class as well.

On Thursday, Brain Week participants can learn about the diagnosis and treatment of brain tumors, as well as common and reversible cause of dementia. On Friday, there is a course available for those new to Parkinson’s Disease. For more information on times or to reserve a seat, call 324-1960.

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