It’s trivia night and you are ready to go. State capitals? On it. Pop culture references? Yes please. Sports stats? A slam dunk.
This ability to whip out facts and figures in a split second is thanks to your memory, a complex system that allows you to recall everything from how to ride a bike to the lyrics of the "Hamilton" soundtrack.
But even the savviest trivia whiz will experience changes in memory function as a part of normal aging.
“As we age, our brain naturally changes. Certain parts may shrink or atrophy, and blood flow to certain regions and communication between neurons can slow,” says Pamela Dean, a board-certified clinical neuropsychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UW School of Medicine.
Luckily, establishing healthy habits early can help promote brain health and support your memory.
How memory works
There are two main types of memory systems with circuits that are housed in various regions in your brain, Dean says.
Declarative memory, or factual memory, is your ability to recall facts and experiences, such as your third grade teacher’s name, how you felt your first day of work or all those "Hamilton" lyrics.
Procedural memory, or muscle memory, is your body’s ability to remember how to do physical tasks like playing an instrument, driving or riding a bike. In these cases, procedural memory kicks in and you go on autopilot without thinking about the individual steps required to complete the tasks.
For you to encode and recall these memories, Dean notes three processes need to happen smoothly: learning, retention and retrieval.
“I like to think of our memories like a filing cabinet,” Dean says. “We need a lot of different things in place for information to come in and for us to later retrieve it.”
You encode or learn information that you want to remember (add it to your filing cabinet) through different methods, such as seeing, hearing or touching something. The stronger your attention is when you perceive this information, the better you can organize, store and retain it (create an orderly filing cabinet). Then, when you need that information, you retrieve the memory (pull the file from the filing cabinet).
At its best, your memory functions like an organized filing cabinet with well-labeled folders sorted by topic. At worst, papers are haphazardly stuffed into the drawers and some documents are missing altogether.
The difference between memory and attention
We often blame forgetfulness on our memories — or worry that it’s a sign of decline in memory function — but it’s important to distinguish between forgetfulness caused by memory versus attention.
“We as neuropsychologists think of memory a little differently than most people. Anything we take in and hold onto for, say, longer than 10 minutes is considered a long-term memory store, whereas anything we hold onto for seconds to minutes is dependent on attention,” Dean says.
Attention affects your ability to store information accurately and completely. If you are distracted when taking in new information, it will be harder to recall those details later. In other words, lack of attention means you miss documents that otherwise would be added to your filing cabinet.
Say, for example, you are multitasking and trying to finish a work email while listening to your partner’s day. Later, when they reference a story, you have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s not that you have a faulty memory, it’s that you weren’t paying enough attention to encode (take in) and store that information in the first place.
How aging affects your memory
Even with laser-focused attention, most people will have trouble recalling information as they age due to memory changes.
“Memory is housed in different areas in the brain and some regions are more susceptible to change as we age,” Dean says. “Because of this, we have a harder time recalling things freely without a cue and have more moments of absentmindedness.”
While scientists are still learning what causes age-related memory loss (as well as more serious conditions like dementia), they do know that the hippocampus and frontal lobe, key regions for memory function, shrink as you age and changes can occur in your white matter, which connects regions of the brain and transmits messages between them.
Medical, neurological and mental health also affect the brain and therefore memory function. Overtime, stress, fatigue, mood and health conditions like Type 2 diabetes, stroke and depression can all take a toll on your cognitive abilities, Dean says. Smoking, high blood pressure and poor cardiovascular health also contribute to memory problems later in life.
As you get older, normal age-related memory problems may look like trouble coming up with a name of an acquaintance, forgetting about an appointment date but remembering it later; experiencing that tip-of-your-tongue feeling; occasionally losing your train of thought; and misplacing things from time to time. If these experiences start to happen more regularly, then it is time to see your doctor.
More serious problems like forgetting the meaning of common words; losing items and then finding them in odd places; suspicion or your friends and family; or forgetfulness that impacts daily life may be signs of dementia and warrant a visit with your doctor.
How to protect your memory while you’re young
Practicing healthy brain habits in your 20s, 30s and 40s can help preserve your brain health later in life.
“While we still don’t know what causes different neurodegenerative disorders, cellular changes in the brain can begin decades before we experience symptoms or reach that threshold,” Dean says.
Healthy habits like getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night, eating a nutritious diet, engaging socially, protecting your head by wearing a helmet, and getting regular physical activity all affect your cognitive abilities and, in turn, your memory.
Keeping your mind active also promotes brain health — though those sudokus and crossword puzzles won’t prevent memory loss.
“Research does not support that brain games are preventative, but there can be other benefits like making someone feel successful and engaged. Self-efficacy can contribute to improved mood and to your attention system, as well as how efficient you feel your brain is working,” Dean says.
Ultimately, there’s no magic pill that will prevent memory loss. Instead, Dean notes it all comes back to balance and making small changes that improve your overall health and well-being.
“It can feel overwhelming initially when starting new health activities, but it helps to focus on small changes in your day to day,” she says. “We can stack the cards in our favor and do what we can now to promote our brain health later.”