What Is Normal Cognitive Aging and Memory Loss?
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Health

What Is Normal Cognitive Aging?

And why you can’t remember that name.

animation of wind blowing through tree in the shape of a brain and leaves blowing away, cognitive aging, memory, brain
Harry Haysom

 “What was the name of … ,” my husband inquires.

“Be more specific,” I implore.

“That actress … in that movie. … You know. …”

I nod, as if I do. But I don’t. Not yet.

He’ll name the movie — sometime between a few minutes from now and his next birthday. Eventually we finish each other’s sentences and find the missing word.

Next time he utters, “Pre … ,” and pauses, shaking his head. “Pre-marriage?”

I chime in, “I think you mean ‘pre-nup,'" something we don’t have or need.

Finishing each other’s sentences is one of the main reasons we stay married. If not for each other, Google would be our spouse.

Sometimes I grab my husband’s smartphone before he lunges for external support, hoping that if he forces his brain to dig into its sluggish memory drive, his memory muscles will strengthen.

I used to be the one with the sharper memory. I could recall exactly what someone wore at dinner, what we ordered and talked about — in 1987. My husband would blame his memory lapses on working too hard. Now that he’s retired, that theory has been debunked.

My mother used to call me by my brothers’ names. Then she called me “Pepe,” our poodle’s name. While Pepe and I were joined at the paw, his hair was curly gray and mine stick-straight brown. I feared that my mother found me unremarkable.

Recently my memory retrieval of names took a plunge. I reacted as if the stock market had crashed and my entire memory savings account was worthless. I never thought it would happen to me.

Today I have trouble retrieving the name of a two-word object — something I use every day! I’m a sputtering car engine unable to start. Five minutes later, I rev up and “oven mitt” leaves the tip of my temporal lobe, magically downloading. I don’t forget work deadlines or how to make risotto. It’s the little things: “What’s that called again?”

As we all search and stammer for words, the universal worry always arises: Is this is a natural part of the aging process or Alzheimer’s (one word we never forget)?

What is age-related cognitive decline? First we should understand the difference between fluid and crystallized intelligence, says Charles H. Edwards II, M.D., founding physician of The Memory and Movement Center in Charlotte, North Carolina, and author of Much Abides: A Survival Guide for Aging Lives.

“Don’t worry about a decline in ‘fluid’ intelligence —when we can’t remember names, forget why we’ve gone into a room in search of something, or have challenges using technology,” Edwards told me. “But if you can’t remember a good friend or having dinner with them a few nights ago, that signifies a decline in ‘crystallized intelligence,’ using our life experiences and history with a person.”

A name is an abstract tag. As long as you remember someone’s face and your history with them, struggling to remember their name shouldn’t be alarming. Fluid intelligence starts to decline after age 28; crystallized intelligence goes up with age.

We’ve all gone into another room and forgotten what we’re searching for. You leave behind whatever triggered you to accomplish or search for something. When you see that trigger in the other room, you have an “aha” moment.

“Our brains have certain blind alleys,” continues Edwards. “Aging makes us slower in reaction. We have a loss of ability to multitask and filter out distractions.”

Sometimes my husband and I play word-retrieval doubles with friends. Four of us swat around unfinished sentences, serving up fragments until one of us lobs something even more banal than “oven mitt,” cheering as if we’d just won a tournament.

“Boomers have high expectations of our memory and ability to solve problems,” says Edwards. “When we fail or have a glitch, we react far out of proportion.”  

Anxiety over memory loss can actually cause memory loss. Whenever you have a little memory glitch, Edwards advises not taking it too seriously. Although you can’t reverse normal cognitive aging, he advocates keeping your brain healthy with exercise, positive thoughts and social interactions. Research cited in an article in Harvard Health titled “Protecting Against Cognitive Decline” also points to limiting alcohol, getting consistent good-quality sleep, mental stimulation (puzzles, group discussions, playing music) and a Mediterranean diet.

I continue to stir turmeric into my oatmeal, as Andrew Weil, M.D., says studies in India show the lowest rate of Alzheimer's where turmeric is part of every meal. However, experts from the Alzheimer’s Society stress that more research is needed before claiming that turmeric could treat dementia.

Most experts agree that regular exercise, including walking, boosts memory and thinking skills. In the Harvard Health article, Scott McGinnis, M.D., instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, recommends “establishing exercise as a habit, almost like taking a prescription medication.”

After my morning cycling workout, I’m back at work, remaining calm when I forget a computer keyboard shortcut. It’ll come back to me, a few deep breaths away. If not, Google is my friend, although I won’t admit it to my husband.

Today I have to give him hints to retrieve the word “Netflix.” He flicks on the remote, wondering what we should select.

“Want to watch Casablanca again?” he asks. “Filmed in 1942. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Did you know it was loosely based on a true story? And critics always rank it in the top 10 films of all time."

Surprised, he beams. “How’d you like that?”

“Impressive.”

I suggest making popcorn, then search in the kitchen for that glove thingy that protects my hand from the heat — but I know the measurements for making popcorn by heart.

I return to the TV room, remembering exactly why I’m there.

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