The face is familiar but you just can’t remember the name. It’s right on the tip of your tongue, and then it’s gone. You mumble a vague greeting and then move on. Only an hour later, the name pops into your mind, clear as day.
The first time this happens, you chalk it up to stress or distraction; then it happens again. A name here and there, a password, or a street address seems to temporarily elude you. The memory you are seeking usually presents itself after the fact, often at the oddest time. At some point, you might begin to wonder, why can’t I remember?
Memory changes occur as we get older; if you find yourself frustrated by frequent memory lapses, it may be time to learn more about age-related memory changes. Though the aging process itself affects memory, other factors, including hormones, may contribute to or compound these changes. Understanding the impact of hormones can help you learn to manage and seek treatment for memory lapses.
Why Can’t I Remember? How the Brain Changes With Age
Harvard psychology professor, Dr. Daniel Schacter, has defined seven different types of memory problems we may experience throughout our lives. The first three involve forgetting while the remaining four involve distortions of retrieved memories:
- Transience: Forgetting some things over time
- Absentmindedness: Failing to remember things when our attention is divided
- Blocking: A temporary inability to retrieve a memory that is on the “tip of the tongue”
- Misattribution: Associating a memory with the wrong source or circumstance
- Suggestibility: An imagined or familiar thing is mistaken for a memory
- Bias: Our memories are affected by our biases and perceptions
- Persistence: Negative or traumatic memories that may be factual or distorted
Some of these become more pronounced as we age. Transience, for example, occurs when we clear out old, seldom-used memories to make room for new ones.
Some memory losses and distortions can be normal and not necessarily indicative of Alzheimer’s disease or other serious memory impairment. Indeed, many factors affect the brain functions responsible for memory as we age, including:
The normal aging process causes changes to the hippocampus. As this important structure decreases in volume, researchers have noted a decline in several brain functions, including episodic memory, working memory, processing speed, and executive function.
Since memory consolidation is believed to occur while we are sleeping, ensuring adequate quality sleep is crucial. Researchers have determined that seven to eight hours is the ideal amount, with less or more negatively impacting memory and thinking skills. Chronic stress may affect our sleep and is linked to inflammation that may affect many parts of the body including the brain.
Impaired blood flow can cause serious problems for the brain and memory as we age. For this reason, good physical health is critically important for brain function. Having regular physicals and treating high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol is essential for protecting your brain. Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding smoking also promote vascular health.
Thyroid problems may cause memory problems and a lack of concentration. One study found that people suffering from hypothyroidism had a 12% decrease in the volume of their right hippocampus. Scientists hypothesize that this may be the cause of memory deficits seen when an underactive thyroid gland fails to produce enough hormone.
The impact of declining sex hormones on memory function in older adults is multifaceted and remains the subject of ongoing research. Hormonal fluctuations in both men and women may contribute to the memory problems commonly associated with aging. They may also disrupt sleep.
Imbalances of estrogen and progesterone may have profound effects on neurotransmitters in the brain, predisposing women to a variety of mood disorders and neurodegenerative processes. This may be why menopause, whether natural or surgical, is often associated with complaints of memory issues. One recent study found that although women outperformed men in memory function in early midlife, this advantage disappeared following menopause.
The decline of testosterone (T) as men grow older may cause a similar disruption to the neurotransmitters in the brain. This can be even more pronounced in men who have lower than average levels of testosterone for their age, as low T is known to have a detrimental effect on memory as well as other key cognitive functions.
Supports for Memory Functioning
Numerous factors have been found to support and enhance memory as we age. Many of them are simple and easily accessible. They include:
- Enjoy your coffee. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have demonstrated that one to two cups of coffee (~200mg of caffeine) each day can improve memory consolidation for 24 hours after consumption. These benefits are derived from caffeine, but coffee also contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that may offer some protection against neurodegenerative disorders. These properties are greatest in light roast coffees.
- Favor focus over multitasking. Attention is linked to both the encoding and retrieval of memories. When your attention is divided between several tasks, you may not be fully committing any of them to memory. Try giving your full focus to one task and even using attention-related supports for working memory before moving on to the next one.
- Establish an exercise routine. Researchers have demonstrated that exercise programs that include both aerobics and resistance training improves cognitive function across all domains in adults over 50. A minimum of 45-60 minutes of moderate exercise on as many days of the week as possible is recommended to gain these benefits.
- Make time for brain games. Challenging our brains with games, puzzles, and activities can help to sharpen our cognitive abilities. Research shows that accessible online training programs successfully improved cognitive functioning in healthy adults over age 60.
- Support brain health with dietary choices. Evidence suggests that the Mediterranean Diet or a modification called the MIND (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay) can support brain health and slow the rate of cognitive decline. In one study, individuals with the strictest adherence to the MIND diet tested 7.5 years younger than those who did not. The benefits were especially significant in episodic memory, semantic memory, and perceptual speed.
- Include supplements in your daily routine. Nutritional deficiencies contribute to many of the health problems older adults experience. Dietary supplementation with magnesium L-threonate may support memory functions and delay the effects of aging on the brain.
- Consider hormone replacement therapy. Since memory lapses and other cognitive changes can be triggered by hormonal decline, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may offer a powerful treatment option. There are some indications that the benefits of HRT are dependent on the timing of its initiation, especially for women. The greatest benefits were realized when HRT was initiated within ten years of menopause or during the perimenopausal period. Therefore, it is essential to consult with a practitioner who specializes in hormones as soon as an age-related decline is suspected.
By finding strategies that make sense for your lifestyle, you can set yourself up for success.
Exploring Hormone Replacement Therapy
With declining hormones playing a prominent role in changes as we age, the benefits of hormone replacement therapy can be significant, addressing symptoms such as hot flashes, insomnia, and painful intercourse. For some, HRT may also have benefits for age-related cognitive symptoms, including forgetfulness.
Consulting a specialist in hormone health and anti-aging medicine can help you determine if hormone replacement therapy may help you with memory lapses and other uncomfortable symptoms. To determine whether HRT is appropriate in your case, a hormone specialist will take a detailed medical history and evaluate your hormone levels via blood spot, saliva, and/or urine tests. This can be accomplished through a telemedicine visit and at-home testing from the comfort and privacy of your home. The best course of action will likely be a personalized, holistic plan that may include lifestyle adjustments and supplements.
Today, there are more opportunities than ever to explore the possibility of HRT to treat memory problems and other challenging symptoms as you age. With the right plan, you can support your physical, emotional, and cognitive health for years to come.
If you’re wondering why can’t I remember, BodyLogicMD wants to help. The expert practitioners in the BodyLogicMD network can assess your needs and design a personalized BalancePro plan to help you achieve your goals—from virtually anywhere. Set up your telehealth consultation, or take the BodyLogicMD Hormone Balance Quiz to learn more about how hormones may be affecting your everyday life.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. All content on this website is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent diseases.