Here's something worth remembering: Forgetfulness is a normal part of getting older, and so-called senior moments -- such as having trouble recalling an acquaintance's name at a party -- aren't necessarily cause for concern. Some people start to recognize changes to their memory as early as their mid 50s. More will notice a change in their 60s. By the time they're in their 70s, four out of five people report that their memory isn't as sharp as it was previously, according to the Mayo Clinic's Study of Aging. Your genes play a role in determining how long you'll be as sharp as a tack, but adopting a variety of healthy habits can also help you stave off those senior moments.
As you age, physical changes in the brain often affect your memory. The prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, which both play important roles in learning, memory and planning, shrink in size. The connections that allow brain cells to communicate with one another become weaker, and arteries narrow, reducing blood flow. As a result, you may find that you don't recall information as quickly or as easily as you once did, that it takes longer to learn new things, or that you forget pieces of information and misplace objects more frequently. You'll likely also find that you have more difficulty multitasking and that you need to put more effort into concentrating on each task. "These changes don't mean that the memory machine is broken," says Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic's Study of Aging. "But you may have to start putting more emphasis and energy into the process of laying down new memories."
If you're worried that moments of forgetfulness could be signs of something more serious, consider what you're forgetting and how often. For instance, misplacing your keys occasionally can be the result of a busy life and a distracted mind. But if you or someone close to you notices a pattern of forgetting occasions that are important to you -- say, a lunch date or an upcoming visit from your children -- make an appointment to see your doctor. He or she will generally conduct a physical exam, ask questions to check on your memory and problem-solving skills, and screen for more-serious memory problems, such as mild cognitive impairment, dementia or Alzheimer's disease.
Also contact your doctor if you notice changes in your memory that start about the same time you begin taking a new medication, or if you also have a medical condition, such as diabetes or thyroid, kidney or liver problems. Either situation could cause memory issues.
(Kaitlin Pitsker is staff reporter at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit Kiplinger.com.)
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