Newswise — For most of us, a declining memory is a normal consequence of growing old. But why? What’s happening in the brain that causes age-related memory decline, and is there anything we can do to slow this decline? Gathering evidence suggests that the brain’s ability to make new neurons in a region called the hippocampus – specifically in a sub-region called the dentate gyrus – is important for the acquisition of memories. This capacity for neurogenesis declines as we age, and the result is a decline in at least one kind of memory, studies show.

But that’s not where the story ends. As neuroscientists develop a more complex understanding of how memory works and the impact of aging, they’re learning how exercise, an improved diet and staying mentally active may boost our ability to make new neurons where they’re needed to preserve and maintain memory.

Three neuroscientists spoke recently with The Kavli Foundation about this emerging consensus, and what they hope to learn in coming years about the changing landscape of memory as we age.

Says Fred Gage of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, “Along with gaining a better understanding of the different types of memory, we’re getting a better understanding of how we acquire, store and retrieve information. … And that gives us a lot more confidence about understanding something about the mechanisms involved in memory and age-related memory decline.”

Adds Scott Small of Columbia University and a member of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science: “It’s an especially exciting time because of the technologies we use to image the brain in living human beings. … There is really very good evidence that different regions do slightly different things, and that's important.”

Craig Stark of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, University of California, Irvine, says: “Researchers have tried to look at what's going on at the level of an individual neuron and relate that to a behavior or dysfunction. … When we study the hippocampus and the dentate gyrus in particular – brain structures that are so important for memory – there’s been a lot of progress in this area.”

Regarding how we might slow the decline of age-related memory loss, Gage says: “The things we do, how we behave, what we eat and what we do physically all can play a role in how well the brain functions. Our memories are formed in the brain, and the brain is an organ. Just like other organs that deteriorate with age, the brain is going to deteriorate with age in a global sense. But what we do as individuals can impact the rate of that decline.”

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