What is memory?
Memory is the term for information that is stored in your brain and can be retrieved or recalled at any time. Different information is sorted into different areas of the brain, putting like with like. Memory occurs when you cross-reference that information and pull it together to make a complete picture.
People have two types of memory: long-term memory and short-term memory. Short-term memory involves recently learned information you can access at the time you need it, for example, material studied for an exam. Long-term memory stores information you use almost every day or things from the past that are important to you.
Researchers know that some information is more readily absorbed than other information. For example, smells, faces and other things that you see regularly are absorbed almost effortlessly, whereas more complex, less frequently seen images are often harder to retrieve.
How does normal memory work?
Through the use of new technology, scientists are better able to study how the brain works by using specialized scanning equipment. The brain has many different areas that specialize in different types of information. From this, researchers now know that certain attributes of a memory are grouped with other similar recollections; for example, a particular smell may be grouped with other scent recollections.
One memory does not occupy a single slot, but rather it is divided into its various parts. When you retrieve this information, when you remember and recall, your brain cross-references the many attributes of the memory, pulling information together in much the way a search engine on the Web does.
Are some people born with better memories than others are?
There are many factors that contribute to the ability to remember (memory function). Genetics accounts for about half of your mental ability and memory function. It is a simple fact that some people are better at remembering than are others.
How does memory change with age?
Changes in memory function and how they relate to aging is a very active field of research. As your body ages, your mental ability and capacity to remember begin a slow, steady decline. The effects of this become more apparent after age 50, when people begin to experience more incidents of memory lapse. The older you are, the more difficulty you have with short-term memory and mental organization.
As a general rule, as you age, your brain just isn’t able to reorganize and search the way it used to. For example, multitasking (trying to do several things at once) adversely affects the short-term memory of older people. As you grow older, the speed at which you learn new information declines. And how you learn information plays a crucial role in memory function and recall. Promising research suggests that if an older person learns information in the right way, he or she is just as likely to remember it as is someone younger.
What does forgetfulness indicate?
Everyone has had the experience of misplacing their keys or forgetting what they were about to say. Such lapses in memory are common at any age and are not something you need to worry about.
On the other hand, extreme memory loss is never a normal part of growing older. Severe impairment may be a symptom of an underlying disorder or condition such as depression, stress or sleep deprivation. Treating the condition often changes the situation, and the memory issues generally improve or resolve.
Can memory be improved?
There are several things you can do to improve your memory. One is to develop personal organizational techniques, such as making checklists and having a daily planner. Another thing to do is find ways to better manage your stress. By doing this, you will increase your capacity to recall. Another way to help you remember is to separate information into different sections — smaller bits of information are easier to recall than one long segment. Reinforce information by writing it down. All of these things can help improve your ability to remember.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a degenerative brain disease that impedes, among other things, the ability to remember. Because this disease begins with memory loss, many people who experience forgetfulness fear they may have Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists are working on developing tests that, in the future, will detect characteristic changes in the brain and whether or not a person will develop the disease.
Drugs for Alzheimer’s disease that are currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)include Aricept (donepezil), Reminyl (galantamine), Exelon (rivastigmine), Cognex (tacrine) and Nemanda (memantine). Although none of these drugs can stop the ultimate progression of Alzheimer’s, they do provide some benefit in that they can stabilize behavior and prevent decline of cognitive performance. Researchers continue to study possible preventive therapies as well as better treatments.
In a minority of patients, Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a chromosomal abnormality that leads to onset of dementia at an earlier age than usual. These patients develop dementia before the age of 60. Chromosomes are the genetic material that people inherit from their parents. At conception, a child inherits one chromosome from each parent. About 3 percent of people with Alzheimer’s disease have this chromosomal abnormality.
Most people with Alzheimer’s disease are older. Onset of Alzheimer’s dementia after age 75 may also have some genetic component. But there are almost surely other causes that are more important, but not yet identified.