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For most people, it would be hard to imagine a life in which the mind did not routinely discard once-remembered details—from temporarily memorized facts and figures to the characteristics of people and places one hasn’t thought of in years. A normal degree of forgetting is a core element of memory, allowing people to dispense with information for which they no longer have much use.

Of course, forgetting causes problems, too. Minor failures to remember can be inconvenient at any age, and they may become more frequent and troublesome later in life. Scientists have shown that declines in certain types of memory ability are a typical part of aging and do not necessarily reflect the development of a medical condition such as Alzheimer’s disease. Experts have proposed a variety of tactics for staving off memory decline and managing typical levels of memory loss.

Why We Forget

Forgetting can be frustrating when one notices it, but much of what people forget escapes memory quietly. Experts say it's a feature, not a bug, of the way memory works.

Does forgetting have benefits?

Many details and experiences are more relevant to our future than others, and remembering everything would be likely inefficient. Forgetting may actually be helpful for remembering in the sense that less-useful details that are forgotten (such as an old password or outdated set of directions) won’t interfere with the retrieval of useful ones. And forgetting unpleasant or painful memories, when one is able to do so, can make one feel better about past experiences and reduce the burden of negative ones. 

What are some common causes of forgetting?

Information may be forgotten because one wasn’t paying close enough attention initially or has not reinforced the memory of the information by retrieving it. A more recently acquired memory may interfere with the retrieval of an earlier one, such as when one learns the names of more than one person in succession. Stress, lack of sleep, and certain behaviors, such as excessive alcohol consumption, can also temporarily impair memory (causing a “blackout,” in the case of drinking.) 

Aging and Memory Decline

It is well known that some forms of memory ability tend to become less sharp as the decades of one’s life pass by. Just like other parts of the body, the brain changes with age, with accompanying differences in the ability to recall information. But not everyone experiences such declines to the same degree as they get older, and some forms of memory—such as the memory for familiar physical tasks—seem largely unhindered by age.

Is it typical to forget things as you age?

To an extent, yes. Changes in the ability to remember are normal, even in the absence of dementia or another condition, and memory loss is a common concern among older adults. Declines in certain types of memory (such as working memory and episodic memory) mean that a person might occasionally forget the word they had intended to say or where they left a frequently used object. Other forms of memory, including semantic memory (knowledge about the world) and procedural memory, seem to be less affected by normal aging. 

At what age does memory decline?

Memory ability, at least for some kinds of memory (such as working memory), can begin to gradually decline as early as one’s twenties or thirties, with downward trends extending into later life. Research indicates that episodic memory ability (memory for experiences) tends to decrease after age 60. Yet these are averages; for some individuals, memory is preserved to a greater extent and for longer.

Preserving Memory Ability

Can memory be protected as people grow older? While a person may not be able to prevent decreases in memory ability entirely, experts have studied various steps one can take to increase one’s odds of maintaining a sharp memory into older age. There are also techniques for working around common memory issues if they arise.

What are some strategies for preserving memory ability?

Adopting aspects of a generally health-promoting lifestyle—such as a healthy diet, routine physical activity, and plenty of sleep—may help maintain memory as you age. So might playing cognitively challenging games, such as chess, cards, and crossword puzzles, or exercising your mind in other ways.

How can I manage normal, age-related memory loss?

Reducing stress and getting enough sleep could be helpful. Other ways to compensate for forgetfulness include organizing objects (such as car keys) so that their locations are always the same, making an extra effort to concentrate when taking in information to be remembered, minimizing distractions, and using simple memory aids such as planners, calendars, written lists, and reminder notes. In some cases, it may be worth considering medications to enhance memory.

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