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Posted December 19, 2021 by Jen Drost, D.O., MPH
Where is my phone? Did someone take my keys from their hook? We all forget things at one time or another. That’s why Find My iPhone and Bluetooth key finders exist on the market.
But if you find yourself worried about these or other similar instances of forgetfulness or memory loss, you’re not alone. Subtle changes in memory occur naturally as part of the aging process.
In fact, about 40 percent of people in this country age 65 and older deal with the mildest form — age-related memory impairment.
The question is how do you know if your memory loss is strictly age-related or something more serious?
Though there is no clear answer, doctors have identified key differences between normal memory lapses and serious memory problems, such as dementia. Dementia is not a normal part of aging, but instead is a progressive loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other cognitive thinking abilities that interfere with daily activities.
Summa Health discusses why we experience memory decline as we age, and when it’s normal and when it’s time to talk to your doctor. It’s important to know the difference because early detection of memory issues is key for better outcomes.
Factors that contribute to memory loss
With age comes the increased likelihood of developing memory loss. Hormones and proteins that repair your brain cells and grow new ones decline with age. Also, a decreased blood flow to the brain hinders your memory and cognitive skills.
In addition, certain medications, emotional disorders, alcoholism, hypothyroidism and brain diseases can all contribute.
The good news is many of these conditions can be reversible. Eating a healthy diet, rich in antioxidants, help protect brain cells and exercising helps your overall health. Plus, you can help prevent memory lapses by working your brain muscles to keep them in peak shape. As the saying goes, you don’t use it, you lose it.
On the other hand, more serious conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, cannot be reversed. These conditions accelerate cellular dysfunction and death.
Normal memory lapses
Some people are better about remembering things than others, just like some people are better at math or writing than others.
Forgetting where you left your keys or phone is normal, or if you walked upstairs and forgot why once you got there, you still have nothing to worry about. Absent-mindedness most likely is to blame. You’re not paying close enough attention when you put your phone or keys down because you’re thinking about something else.
If you notice that you’ve forgotten facts or events over time, that’s also typical and simply a part of aging. That’s the brains way of clearing unused memories to make way for new ones. Similarly, it’s typical to recall part of a memory, but incorrectly recall the details, such as the time or place. As you grow older, your memories do, too, and time is memory’s worst enemy.
It’s also normal if you forget someone’s name momentarily, struggle with word retrieval or call your child by the wrong name. This is called brain blocking, where a memory is properly stored, but something keeps you from finding it. In most instances, the blocked memory is similar to another one and you retrieve the wrong one.
What’s more, simply losing sleep or having anxiety can contribute to temporary memory loss. Many of these instances are all a normal part of aging. So unless memory loss is extreme and persistent, none of these lapses are indicators of dementia.
When to see a doctor about memory lapses
The time to worry about memory loss is when it begins to impair your ability to function on a daily basis.
For example, forgetting where you placed your glasses is a sign of forgetfulness or normal aging, but forgetting what your glasses are used for or that they are worn on your face is not a normal memory problem.
If you notice the following warning signs on yourself or a loved one, contact your doctor right away. Early detection is key to getting treatment before dementia hits an advanced stage.
A good rule of thumb is if you or your family are worried about your memory, talk with your doctor. Evaluation and peace of mind are just as valuable as a diagnosis.