Anatomy of memory

"The biggest cause of dementia is age," says Julie Moorer, a nurse with the University of Washington and the VA Puget Sound Health Care System.

Moorer spoke at a Memory Wellness workshop last month, sponsored by Dungeness Courte Alzheimer's Community in Sequim and held at John Wayne Marina.

After 10 years of research into memory and aging, the Memory Wellness Program can list signs your brain isn't working as well as possible.

First, though, it is important to understand how memory works. Two small parts of the brain called the hippocampi control short-term memory.

These organs are highly distractible, fragile and finite in how much information they can store. Memories are stored here for a short time but if a memory is not used, it is discarded.

If your attention is not focused solely on what you are doing, the memory will not be stored at all. For instance, if you walk in the house and the phone is ringing, you probably won't remember where you put your house keys because you were focused on the phone.

These organs can be damaged by any blow to the head, which leads to lost memories.

Repetition = retention

If you focus several times on remembering something, it will move to your long-term memory, which incorporates the entire brain. This can store infinite memories and is not distractible. For instance, if you have one special place you put your keys each time you enter your house, the keys will be much easier to find.

As people age, these long-term memories may become harder to recall but they remain and can return with the right trigger - a picture, for instance, or talking with a friend.

As people age, it is normal to:

_ Forget names

_ Get confused when trying to do too many things at once

_ Find that it takes more time and effort to learn something new

_ Find that it is difficult to learn many things at once

_ Have trouble readily recalling needed information. This refers to the feeling that what you want to say is on the tip of your tongue.

Signs of impairment

Below are signs of mild cognitive impairment, which do not necessarily lead to dementia. None of these signs are serious unless they interfere with normal everyday living.

_ Trouble remembering dates

_ Feeling something is not right with you even when no one else notices. You should mention this to your medical doctor.

_ Increased difficulty organizing

_ Often not completing tasks you start

_ Feeling overwhelmed and stressed often

_ Becoming irritable and angry more often

_ Having unexplained mood changes

Treatments may help with these problems.

Serious symptoms

The symptoms below are not normal aging signs and should be discussed with your medical doctor or a neurologist.

_ Often feeling confused

_ Getting lost in familiar surroundings

_ Repeating things several times in a conversation and not remembering having said them

_ Family members and friends saying they think something is wrong

_ Difficulty managing money or other everyday tasks

_ Losing interest in hobbies or other previously enjoyed activities

Make it worse or better

Several factors that can affect memory as we age:

_ Depression or anxiety

_ Stress

_ Medications, especially narcotics, some antidepressants and sleep medications. Any medication that slows a bodily function also will slow brain function.

_ Illness, especially hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol

Prevention always is better than treatment. Preventive methods include:

_ Get a yearly physical with pertinent tests

_ Decrease stress

__Stay active and happy

_ Don't smoke or drink more than one alcoholic drink a day

_ Exercise daily

_ Eat a healthy diet

These steps are the same that doctors have been recommending for decades. Following them can help your memory and keep your mind sharp for years.

Diabetes and dementia

Dementia is an umbrella term for memory problems that interfere with daily activities. Alzheimer's disease is but one form of dementia.

People with Type 2 diabetes have a 65-percent increased risk of developing Alzheimer's and score lower on cognitive tests. One out of two people in Washington state is prediabetic. This is entirely preventable with correct diet and exercise.

The Memory Wellness Program run by the University of Washington and the VA Puget Sound Health Care System continues to study brain function. Volunteers with memory concerns are needed to aid research.

People interested in volunteering should contact 866-683-8813 or visit

Reach Dana Casey at

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