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A reminder: Forgetfulness normal part of daily life

Posted Sep 01 2009 5:51pm

I found this article in The Toronto Star today and I found it refreshing. Finally scientists are acknowledging that forgetfulness is not just a senior thing. We perimenopausal gals experience it to.

By the way, if you are in Toronto and are interested in learning about "brain health", Baycrest puts on a fabulous speaker series called Aging Innovation & the Mind (I do their graphic design btw). The first lecture is this September. You can also view previous lectures online.


While cognitive changes may begin in our 30s, real memory is intact
Aug 04, 2009
Barbara Turnbull
Living reporter

When Joanne Nisker gets together with a group of middle-aged women, failing memory is a frequent topic of conversation.

"Being in meetings with women in their mid-40s and up, it's a running joke," says the 53-year-old volunteer and stepmother of three. "We all discuss it."

Women may discuss it more than men, but forgetfulness affects all middle-aged adults. And real memory loss strikes greater fear in the hearts of aging boomers than physical ailments, experts say.

Busy lifestyles and hormonal changes can account for much of the benign absent-mindedness that's common, such as forgetting something not written down or what it was you went upstairs to get in the first place.

Though little research has been done on those aged 30 to 60, "some cognitive abilities do start changing as early as ... the early 30s," says Angela Troyer, a psychologist at Baycrest, a Toronto geriatric health centre. Memory peaks around age 20, she says.

The brains of the middle-aged are not as well-studied as younger and older adults, partly because people of this age group are more difficult to get into the lab, says Cheryl Grady, a senior scientist at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest.

But one study she led using functional MRI shows adults between 40 and 60 have changes in brain activity that make it difficult to switch focus. Our ability to turn down our "default mode," the state we are in when our brains are just ruminating, diminishes. Previous studies have shown people over 65 definitely have difficulty doing it, but now there's proof the effect begins in middle age, Grady says.

Other studies show changes in visual memory maps are detectable in our 50s.

Most changes are too minor to affect daily functioning, which is another reason for the lack of research with this age group. But that's changing.

Some of it is spurred by complaints of women in perimenopause and menopause. Baycrest is raising $3 million to fund a research chair in women's brain health and aging. A half-day symposium on cognitive complaints in perimenopausal years has been added to the annual meeting of the North American Menopause Society this fall.

Some large, longitudinal, multi-site studies are looking at the impact of hormone replacement on cognition in perimenopausal and menopausal years.

But research shows aging affects the brains of men and women equally.

"The hormonal changes in men are much slower than the abrupt changes in women, yet overall, cognitively, there are no differences in general," says Susan Resnick, a senior investigator with the National Institute of Aging in Baltimore, who specializes in brain changes with aging and has a subspecialty in hormonal modulation with age-associated cognitive changes.

Real memory loss as opposed to forgetfulness is not a normal part of aging, particularly for those in their 30s to 50s, says Jill Rich, a York University psychology professor. Pregnancy, stress, depression, sleep problems, poor diet and taking on too much can cause memory troubles, but anyone without obvious lifestyle factors and serious memory problems, such as repeating conversations, needs to check in with his or her doctor, Rich cautions.

While forgetfulness is understandable, people shouldn't lower their expectations about brain function as they age, says Gordon Winocur, a cognitive neuroscientist studying cognitive changes with aging at Rotman. Otherwise, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Sometimes (you) have to make more of an effort, because there are declining abilities," he says. "But making the extra effort is probably worth it. If you don't, it gets a little flabby and doesn't do the job as well."
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