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.
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.