Normal Age-Related Memory Changes in Adults

Man Wondering What's Normal after His Twenties
Andersen Ross Collection: Blend Images / Getty Images

Some research studies point out that our brains are at maximum functioning in our twenties, saying it's all downhill from then on. (Thanks for the uplifting research?)

Other studies are a little more encouraging and have concluded that select types of cognitive functioning actually improve over time.

So, What Are Normal Cognitive Changes Over TIme?

  • Speed of processing.  You might not be quite as lightning fast as you were at calculations or making decisions.
  • Divided attention. It may be a little more difficult to concentrate on more than one thing at a time. For example, if you're talking on the phone and checking your email at the same time, you may be more distracted.
  • Harder to multi-task. Performing multiple tasks simultaneously or switching back and forth between tasks may be a little less efficient.
  • Some memory changes.  You may experience some subtle memory changes over the years, such as some decreased clarity of episodic memories or prospective memories (which can be compensated for by using calendars and other reminder tools such as timers or phone schedules). The ability to recall and repeat a number of digits is likely to slightly decline over time.

What Stays the Same or Improves?

  • Semantic memory. Your vocabulary should remain fairly constant over the years.
  • Procedural memory. Your memory for how to do things such as ride a bike should remain stable.
  • Crystalized intelligence. Due to the accumulation of facts, experience, and knowledge over time, you will have a higher level of crystallized intelligence. You may be more effective in every-day problem-solving, according to some research, because you have life knowledge and experience.

    Is ADL Functioning the Easy Way to Determine If You Should Worry or Not?

    One research study concludes that normal cognitive aging can be differentiated from dementia simply by assessing the ability to perform activities of daily living. Impaired ability to perform ADLs (basic routine care such as hygiene, dressing, and eating) would indicate abnormal cognition. However, this method, while perhaps accurate in discriminating between dementia and normal cognitive aging, is unlikely to detect early cognitive decline, and there are many benefits to early detection.

    The Really Good News

    While there are several research studies that show a gradual and slight decline in cognition over time, there is also a host of scientific studies that conclude that we can do something about this potential decline. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that memory, word-finding skills, and overall cognition have the potential to be improved through physical exercise, diet, mental exercise, and good physical health. Science has even shown that it's possible to reverse some of the brain atrophy that typically accompanies aging.

    Now that's some good news, especially if you've left your twenties behind.


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    Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Volume 62, Issue 7, pages 1347–1352, July 2014. Can Performance on Daily Activities Discriminate Between Older Adults with Normal Cognitive Function and Those with Mild Cognitive Impairment?

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