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Healthy Aging

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The aging brain


In our 20s and 30s, our brains begin to change in ways that affect how we store memories. We become more forgetful. If you're in your 40s and 50s, you might worry that forgetfulness is an early sign of Alzheimer's disease. But, not all forgetfulness is serious. For instance, knowing a word and not being able to remember it is usually a temporary problem. It's common to forget some of the many things you need to do. And many people mix up, or even forget, appointments now and then. Use lists and a calendar to keep you on track. Put things like your keys in the same place every time.

Just as physical activity keeps your body strong, mental activity can help keep your mind engaged and challenged as you age. Some research suggests that activities that engage your brain might offer some protection against cognitive decline. Here are some activities you might try:

  • Learning to play a musical instrument
  • Playing Scrabble or doing crossword puzzles
  • Starting a new hobby, such as crafts, painting, biking, or bird-watching
  • Staying informed about what's going on in the world
  • Reading

Also, some research suggests that physical activity, especially at high levels, may protect against cognitive decline.

Keep in mind the positive effects of aging on the brain. For instance, people can acquire new skills as they grow older. Middle-aged adults typically do better on tests involving knowledge and information than younger adults do. Vocabulary and word use improve with age. And although perhaps not "measurable," a lifetime of building knowledge and real-world decision-making and experience results in wisdom that is rare in youth.

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When forgetting isn't normal

Although memory lapses are usually minor, serious memory loss and confusion are not a normal part of aging. Memory loss along with big changes in personality and behavior may mean there is a problem. Signs of a syndrome called dementia — the most common form is Alzheimer's disease — include symptoms such as:

  • Asking the same questions over and over again
  • Forgetting how to use everyday objects or words
  • Becoming lost in familiar places
  • Being unable to follow directions
  • Neglecting personal safety, hygiene, and nutrition

These symptoms can also be caused by other more minor medical conditions, infections, nutrition problems, minor head injuries, bad reactions to medicine, or other physical problems that occur in later life. It's important to see a doctor right away to get a correct diagnosis and possibly fix the problem if it is not dementia.

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More information on The aging brain

Read more from womenshealth.gov

  • Mental Health - This section of womenshealth.gov provides information on taking care of your mental health throughout the different stages of your life.

Explore other publications and websites

  • Age Page: Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask for Help - This fact sheet explains the differences between dementia and normal age-related changes in memory. The diagnosis, treatment options, and research issues are considered.
  • Aging in the Know: Psychological and Social Issues (Copyright © The AGS Foundation for Health in Aging) - This publication explains how the mind ages as we age. It deals with learning, memory, reaction time, intelligence, and life skills. In addition, it provides information on some common stressors of aging, such as caregiving, loss and grief, changing roles, and social status. It gives tips for how to deal with these life changes and the types of healthy behaviors that are important.
  • Health and Aging Organizations - This comprehensive online directory provides contact information for organizations that provide support and services to older adults.
  • Memory Loss: When to Seek Help (Copyright © Mayo Foundation) - Everyone forgets things. How many times have you lost your car keys or forgotten the name of a person you just met? Forgetfulness tends to increase with age, but there's a big difference between normal absent-mindedness and the type of memory loss associated with Alzheimer's disease. This fact sheet discusses the difference between them.
  • What's Your Aging IQ? - This booklet discusses what older people are concerned about, how they can get the most out of the rest of their lives, and what normal aging really is.

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Content last updated: August 12, 2010.

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