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Experts say misplacing keys isn’t necessarily a sign of serious memory loss issues. EASY 2 SHOOT/Stocksy
  • Memory is a complex and often misunderstood topic and remains an active area of scientific research.
  • Memory loss can be a symptom of dementia, but everyone experiences memory loss at some level.
  • A new book highlights some of the insights, challenges, and mysteries of this field of study.

Chances are high that your memory doesn’t work the way you think that it does.

Or at least that’s one of the central tenets of The Psychology of Memory, a new book written by psychologists Dr. Megan Sumeracki and Dr. Althea Need Kaminske.

If your memory does seem to be declining, you don’t need to necessarily fret. It’s quite common.

Indeed, memory is a messy and imprecise function of our brains. It still holds many mysteries both physiologically and psychologically that researchers are actively attempting to solve.

While we may be a long way from definitively describing the precise mechanisms of memory, experts do have some useful information about how it can fail and what we can do about it.

Perfect memory is rare.

Most people are familiar with the experience of forgetting, but why can’t we simply just remember everything?

“The answer to this question is very complex,” Dr. S. Ahmad Sajjadi, a neurologist at UCI Health as well as an associate professor of neurology and chief of the Memory Disorders Division at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, told Medical News Today.

“Having a ‘perfect memory’ can lead to redundant information, inability to cope with adversities in life due to persistent memory, and unnecessary increase in energy requirement for brain that already consumes 20 percent to 25 percent of whole-body energy,” Sajjadi explained.

Dr. Alex Dimitriu, an expert in psychiatry and sleep medicine and founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California, summed it up for Medical News Today this way: “The brain is designed to run fast and smooth, and sometimes this means leaving out certain details while focusing attention on others. Some details just get lost for the sake of space.”

Memory happens in our brain and like everything else in our body our brain changes over time. This means that our ability to form new memories or recall previous memories can change over time, too.

Karen Miller, PhD, a neuropsychologist, geropsychologist, and senior director of the Brain Wellness and Lifestyle Programs at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in California, told Medical News Today that we tend to learn new information more quickly before the age of 35 and our ability remains stable from about 35 to 65 years of age.

“However, around 65, we experience some mild decline in the ability to learn new information and recall it,” said Miller.

This doesn’t happen all at once, though.

“It is a very mild change that continues with the decades to come,” Miller said.

Mitzi Gonzales, PhD, the director of Translational Research in the Jona Goldrich Center for Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders in the Department of Neurology at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, told Medical News Today that she agrees.

“These changes occur very gradually over the lifespan and they tend to be compensated by the fact that you have more experience and knowledge overall as you get older,” Gonzales said. “But it’s really common as people age to start experiencing a little difficulty with things like readily retrieving the name of an acquaintance they haven’t seen for a while. That’s typical and part of normal aging.”

“While mild changes in memory, like occasionally misplacing glasses or keys, can also occur in normal aging, memory loss is more pronounced in individuals who are developing dementia,” said Patricia Boyle, PhD, a neuropsychologist with the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago and a professor of behavioral sciences at Rush Medical College in Chicago.

“Individuals may recognize these changes in themselves, but often it is family members or friends who are the first to notice,” she told Medical News Today.

When does typical memory loss cross over into the realm of something to be concerned about?

“If this is something every now and then, that’s normal. But if you’re noticing a sharp increase — perhaps misplacing items numerous times per day — that might mean that something is interfering with your ability to retain this information, so that might be a good time to get an evaluation,” said Gonzales.

If you or someone you know might be experiencing cognitive issues, visiting with a general practitioner is often a good place to start.

“There are other things besides dementia that can impact our memory such as vitamin deficiencies or other chronic medical conditions, so just by doing some blood panels and examinations they may be able to rule out some of those other things that might be contributing,” Gonzales pointed out.

After ruling out these other explanations, you might then be referred to a specialist.

The obvious next question is whether we can do anything to preserve or even improve our working memory.

For practical reasons it can be difficult to design and validate studies around this question, but the experts who spoke to Medical News Today were generally in agreement on the types of activities most likely to benefit memory.

“Age-related memory loss is not inevitable,” said Boyle. “Having an active and engaged lifestyle with a strong focus on good mental health is key to cognitive health in old age. This ideally should begin in early life, but individuals of all ages can benefit from focused efforts to get engaged, connect with others, and find their purpose.”

“A lot of memory consolidation takes place during sleep — especially deep sleep or slow wave sleep, which also declines with age. This is a good reminder to everyone old and young to get enough good quality sleep,” said Dimitriu.

“Aerobic exercise, meditation, and cognitive stimulation by doing regular mental activities seems to have a positive effect on attention and working memory,” offered Sajjadi.

“Take on a new hobby or sport, socialize with friends and family, read more books (or listen to podcasts), write in a journal, travel, engage in a new art form, go to your local museums, and play games of skills,” suggested Miller.

The key to games is to keep doing the ones you like that focus on a ‘whole brain workout’ including memory, language, visual spatial skills, attention, and executive functioning. Games should be stimulating and fun, not stressful,” Miller added.

“There’s no research to suggest you have to do one specific activity — you don’t necessarily have to do crossword puzzles if you don’t want to — but it should be something you enjoy that really challenges you to learn something new and takes you out of your routine,” said Gonzales.