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Memory and the elderly.

Memory and the Elderly

Is senility inevitable if you live long enough? For some, yes. For many, it depends upon their general health, mental activity, and heredity.

Myths about old age persist, that memory goes into serious decline when a person reaches seventy or eighty. Many people in their thirties and forties are frozen in panic when they experience memory lapse.

Fortunately, more men and women are reaching these "twilight" years and proving themselves to be bright, alert, even productive. Their numbers are large enough to dispense with the word "exceptions."

It is true that neurons continue to disappear as we age. The fact ignores how many brain cells the brain contains: we possess so many trillions of cells that even the loss of millions a week would only amount to an infinitesimal deficit.

Alzheimer's disease and senile dementia are afflictions publicized widely in recent years. They are devastating but not limited to the elderly, nor do they strike large numbers of people.

Recent experiments have proved that the elderly show no difference in their ability to retrieve memories from the past than to retain short-term memories. The criterion lies in their area of interest.

If a person can remember past events and recount interesting stories from those periods, it should be apparent that the equipment is still intact. Imagining the future poses no problems either. Age does not seem to make any difference when fantasizing.

Older people are often accused of "not showing interest," and that complaint is meant to imply dimunition of mental faculties. Reduced interest can be attributed to boredom, overfamiliarity with a subject or blase attitudes based on disillusionment. Manifesting interest is part of interpretive memory function -- which in young or old depends upon healthy curiosity.

There is no denying that depression strikes the elderly in larger numbers. Their vulnerability is easily understood: death has taken many of their friends and relatives, life's work has yielded to retirement, sexual activity may be nonexistent, health problems large and small usually appear with some regularity; the inevitable rush of events descends in many unfamiliar forms.

Depression reduces a person's attention to the environment and affects brain function, especially memory, although the brain itself has no organic problems.

The ravages of even mild depression can reduce an individual's concept of self, and heighten the conviction that one's mind is faltering, mental powers are declining.

There are undeniable differences between the memory of the young and elderly. Their recognition powers are about the same, but perceptions shift: in youth the world is unknown, confusing. The need is to learn how the world works. But later, as we discover the clue to many problems of living, our mental resources and dependence on memory are concentrated on linking everything with past experience. The elderly have lived, loved, lost and often won. They know the significance of events.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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